Samuel R. Berger, former national security advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001, is a PSA Advisory Board Member.
March 19, 2013|Foreign Policy
What Obama Must Do In Israel
This week, when Air Force One lands in Tel Aviv, the newly reelected American president and the Israeli prime minister with a new government will turn the page on a new chapter in their relationship. And they will discuss how to manage the strategic challenges we both face in ways that protect our respective interests.
Much has been made and said about the personal relationship between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. Some of it is even true: It has been far from tension-free, and is very much in need of a reboot. But I also think that too much has been said about it, as if the bilateral relationship could be reduced to their personal rapport — as if the strategic dimension of the two countries’ ties were either anecdotal or purely a function of personal chemistry.
William Cohen is a member of PSA’s Advisory Board and former Secretary of Defense (1997-2001). This article originally appeared in The Hill newspaper.
Crossing the Rubicon
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently visited Israel and called for greater engagement between our two countries. Given the fact that it’s difficult to find a closer political bond between two countries anywhere in this galaxy, one would surmise that there’s little distance to travel to cement the relationship between our two democracies. After all, we share similar values, ideals and interests.
There exists, however, a singular and important difference within this triangle of bonded friendship. Israel lives in a neighborhood that is far more unstable than that enjoyed by the United States. The geographic proximity of those whose stated goal is to vanquish the state of Israel — and who could soon have the capacity to do so — causes the Israelis to view threats through a different prism.
Now that direct peace talks have officially collapsed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to take unilateral steps towards statehood, including appealing to the United Nations. His hope is to achieve independence by the end of 2011. So far, the United States has been wary of any unilateral actions, preferring a comprehensive peace deal. To help achieve a negotiated peace, however, President Obama must dramatically increase security assistance to the Palestinian Authority and exert significant pressure on the Netanyahu administration.
President Abbas is dangerously close to being labeled a failure. The Palestinian Authority has effectively lost control of the Gaza Strip since Hamas’ takeover in 2007. In the West Bank, Israel continues to build settlements on disputed lands and has nearly completed its security barrier. The Palestinian economy is weak and dependent on freedom of movement allowed by Israeli security forces. Peace negotiations, meanwhile, have little prospects for success given Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition. At the age of 75 and with no clear successor, Abbas could use a unilateral declaration of independence as a means to overcome the current deadlock and establish a legacy as the father of a nation.
Yet President Abbas understands this approach is fraught with peril. Israel has made it clear that it will not recognize a Palestinian state without a negotiated peace deal. Should Abbas unilaterally declare independence, Israel has threatened to formally annex large parts of the West Bank and annul past peace agreements. Given its near complete control over the Palestinian economy, Israel could effectively prevent any independent state from becoming viable. Abbas knows unilateral independence will make him the father of a failed state and an alternative path for progress must be found. (more…)
From my first visit in 1993, the latter days of the first intifada, I have had difficulty describing the people and environment in the Gaza strip. As I wrote in 2009, “[D]espair, destruction, extremism and violence are terms easily at hand, but they do not do justice to life in Gaza today.” Writing from the balcony of the Al-Mathaf (the Museum), a brand new beachfront hotel with a fantastic museum housing an archeological treasure trove documenting the history of Gaza, I still feel incapable of accurately conveying the essence or details of life in Gaza today.
Thirty minutes after seemingly beaming (as if from one planet to another on Star Trek) from the developed to the underdeveloped worlds, a prominent Gaza attorney spoke of his daily challenges: “[W]e exist as people physically segregated from the rest of the world. We do not live in a country but have two governments [the Hamas-run administration in Gaza and the PLO – led Palestinian Authority from Ramallah]. But neither administration controls our borders. As a lawyer, I have to work through Israeli administrative regulations, British Mandate laws, and directives from our two governments. And, I want an independent judiciary system with no corruption.” (more…)
Visitors to Turkey are warned about developing a “Turkish muscle” – the extra belly fat that you get from eating too much Turkish food. Yet it’s the country’s desire to flex its foreign policy muscle that has, at times, proved worrisome. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s “Zero-Problems” foreign policy, which emphasizes regional engagement and outlines an active role in promoting Turkey’s interests on the world stage, is a far cry from Turkey’s past practice of isolating itself from its neighbors. But some of its recent diplomatic forays under this policy, especially the nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran and renewed relations with Syria, have led some in the West to query whether we are losing Turkey.
Earlier this month, I traveled to Turkey on a trip sponsored by the Rumi Forum and discussed the zero-problems policy with officials, parliamentarians, and community leaders, among others. Equally as interesting as learning more about the goals of this new assertiveness, though, was hearing about some of the speed bumps in the process of carrying it out – namely the challenge of working with coalition governments.
At the heart of the zero-problems policy is a desire for peace and stability, goals which political and business leaders alike understandably embrace with vigor. During the trip, contentious issues like Iran and Syria were explained in this context; its diplomacy with Iran helps prevent war in the region, engagement with Syria has economic benefits. Turkey’s desire for stability, though, also requires having stable partners to work with. Divided governments carry an inherent risk of being quite the opposite, and, as such, they constitute a significant impediment for Turkey. (more…)
In so many ways, Gaza and the West Bank seem to be drifting farther apart. Recently, though, one place where Palestinians have come together is on the pitch – that is to say, the soccer field. In fact, the Palestinian national team has emerged as “a rare point of unity for the fiercely-divided Palestinian factions.”
At the heart of the harmony around the national team may be soccer’s revitalization in Gaza. Some of the best Palestinian soccer players are from Gaza. But until recently, the professional league there had been in dire straits. When Hamas took control in 2007, it also took control of the league, including the 16 teams sponsored by Fatah. Competitive soccer in Gaza came to a standstill. The so-called “beautiful game” wasn’t so beautiful anymore; it was just gone.
The game, though, did not lose its popularity and months of negotiations between the two factions took place to resolve the rift. As a result, in perhaps a “baby step toward Palestinian reconciliation,” Hamas and Fatah agreed to restore the league earlier this spring, placing the 16 disputed Fatah teams under a joint Fatah-Hamas committee, and the Gaza league finished its first full season this summer. Not only are the fans happy, but it also sends a positive message. Said the head of soccer in Gaza, “We know we can’t solve all of the political problems, but maybe soccer will bridge the gap.” (more…)
As a sign of how bad a mistake Israel made when its commandos boarded the Gaza bound ship Mavi Marmara on May 31 consider what Slate columnist Christopher Hitchens, a former liberal who moved rightward after 9/11 wrote yesterday:
The near-incredible stupidity of the Israeli airborne descent on the good ship Mavi Marmara, by troops well-enough equipped to shoot when panicked but not well-enough prepared to contain or subdue a preplanned riot, has now generated much more coverage and comment than Erdogan’s cynical recent decision to become a partner in the nuclear maneuvers of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Israeli self-pity over Gaza—”You fire rockets at us! And after all we’ve done for you!”—may be incredibly unappetizing. An occupation that should never have been allowed in the first place was protracted until it became obviously unbearable for all concerned and then turned into a scuttle. The misery and shame of that history cannot be effaced by mere withdrawal or healed by the delivery of aid. It can only really be canceled by a good-faith agreement to create a Palestinian state.
Sad to say we have been down this road before with Israel. It does something wrong, countries and people object, and the pro-Israel crowd opens up the spin spigots, i.e., people who criticize Israel don’t understand that it is at war, that people who criticize are naïve leftists and terrorist travelers, or just plain old anti-Jewish bigots. (more…)
Amid the intense domestic coverage of the health care debate came a reminder of the hope that even hardened global figures have for the Obama Presidency and its ability to transform global affairs.
In the hours after Congress acted last Sunday, the White House announced that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was one of the first two global leaders to call and congratulate Obama on his domestic victory.
Now, it is reasonable to assume that the Saudi leader was not particularly concerned about health care reform itself but recognized that its passage would strengthen Obama domestically and perhaps reignite his desire to be remembered as a transformative President not simply at home but also abroad.
In 2008 Obama ran a campaign that, in part, portrayed his very election as a step towards resetting U.S. relations with the international community. Further more, by illustrating his understanding of specific hot button issues ranging from Indo-Pakistani disagreements in Kashmir to the harm caused by the Bush administrations “war on terror”, Obama suggested that he would prioritize tackling the policy matters that had corroded relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world and thus undermined U.S. national security.
His early actions as President, from the appointment of Middle East envoy Mitchell to his historic Cairo speech, collectively suggested that Obama was looking to move beyond simply the reset offered by his election and was seeking a fundamental realignment between the U.S. and the Muslim world that would transform the international arena.
This is my last post for 2009 I thought I would write about Afghanistan but on second thought I will, no doubt, be doing that quite a lot during 2010. Thanks to the Obama Administration’s surge strategy Afghanistan will, from a blogging viewpoint, be the gift that keeps on giving.
So, as we contemplate whether 2010 will be better or worse let’s take a moment to consider 2009. In the spirit of Dave Barry’s classic annual year in review column let’s acknowledge, albeit with some poetic license commentary by moi, a few of the significant events that made, however briefly, the headlines.
Although it started on Dec. 28 2008 the month of January saw massive Israeli air strikes and a ground force invasion of the Gaza Strip. Heavy ﬁghting took place in Gaza City between the Israeli forces and Hamas. At least 1300 Palestinians were killed. On Jan. 17 Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a unilateral ceaseﬁre in the Gaza Strip, declaring that Israel has achieved the goals it set when launching the military operation. On Jan. 21 Israel completes its troop withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Also that month President Barack Obama signed executive orders closing the US detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year; closing the CIA’s secret prisons; requiring a review of military trials for terror suspects; and requiring all interrogations to follow the non-coercive methods speciﬁed in the Army Field Manual.
Of course, nobody knew back then that the camp would end up in Illinois. One can only hope that the inmates are not too acclimated to the Caribbean climate to adjust to a midwest winter.
On Jan 27 Hama declared that it previously was just kidding and broke the ceaseﬁre by attacking an Israeli frontier patrol. Israel immediately responded that it lacks a sense of humor and renewed its air strikes on the Gaza Strip border with Egypt.
On Feb. 3 Iran launched its ﬁrst domestically built satellite into orbit. Iran stated that the satellite is meant for research and telecommunications purposes, but Western states express concern that the technology could be used in the development of ballistic missiles. The U.S. intelligence community, estimating that Iran will show the same swift progress with its missiles that it did with its nuclear program, predicted the next flight will be in 2040.
On Feb. 6, renewing their classic rivalry, a British and a French nuclear submarine collided in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Political leaders from both countries sighed in relief that it was merely submarines and not their respective football fans that collided. (more…)
Well, no one said it would be easy. After months of shuttle diplomacy from Middle East Special Envoy Sen. Mitchell, President Obama reengaged on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and committed to securing a final status agreement between the two parties.
For those of us who have been frustrated by the delays in this process the President’s remarks today were very welcome. In particular I was encouraged by this portion of his statement:
Simply put it is past time to talk about starting negotiations — it is time to move forward. It is time to show the flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that’s necessary to achieve our goals. Permanent status negotiations must begin and begin soon. And more importantly, we must give those negotiations the opportunity to succeed. And so my message to these two leaders is clear. Despite all the obstacles, despite all the history, despite all the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. We have to summon the will to break the deadlock that has trapped generations of Israelis and Palestinians in an endless cycle of conflict and suffering. We cannot continue the same pattern of taking tentative steps forward and then stepping back. Success depends on all sides acting with a sense of urgency. And that is why I have asked Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell to carry forward the work that we do here today. Senator Mitchell will meet with the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators next week. I’ve asked the Prime Minister and the President to continue these intensive discussions by sending their teams back to Washington next week. And I’ve asked the Secretary of State to report to me on the status of these negotiations in mid-October.
There is little doubt that the path to a final status agreement will be a tough one but I agree with the President that it is a national security imperative. The question to be answered is whether supporters of a two state solution can provide the political support needed to allow the negotiations to be completed. With that in mind I was encouraged by this letter from prominent faith leaders (see below).
All blog posts are independently produced by their authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of PSA. Across the Aisle serves as a bipartisan forum for productive discussion of national security and foreign affairs topics.