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Reason and Israel-US Tensions

by  David A. Lehrer

April 20, 2010 | 7:54 pm

On an almost daily basis I receive emails from well-intentioned friends and acquaintances warning, in the most apocalyptic of terms, of the deterioration in the US-Israel relationship. They invariably allege that Israel is being assaulted by an uncaring American president who has put his stock in the Muslim world and its future. The vitriol against the president and the secretary of state are troubling—let alone the frequent misrepresentations and exaggerations.

Some of the emails are so over-the-top that they passionately condemn Obama for following a 60 year old American doctrine that no other American president has veered from, keeping the US embassy in Tel Aviv. One such email self-righteously accuses Obama of violating US law for daring to condemn the planned building program in East Jerusalem.

The common thread among virtually all of these polemics is the notion that Netanyahu’s government is doing everything it can to promote peace and that President Obama is ignoring Netanyahu’s efforts and is freezing Israel out of its special place in American foreign policy.

Amidst the passion and drama of the Middle East situation playing itself out on the American stage—ranging from the kerfuffle about Andrew Sullivan and anti-Semitism to the effort to pass a divestment resolution at UC Berkeley—-it is rare to read a sane and sober analysis that brings some intellectual heft to the discussion. This week’s The New Republic is a breath of fresh air.

In his “Washington Diarist” column entitled,

Showdown

, Leon Wieseltier avoids the hyperventilating and exaggeration of the Bibi supporters who demand that America’s president effectively sign up for membership in the Likud party and the Obama loyalists who fail to see that there is a danger in the foreign policy notion that America can mollify the “Muslim world” by some realignment in our Middle East priorities.

Wieseltier succinctly points out the folly of Netanyahu’s course,

I find Netanyahu’s recent behavior incomprehensible…. I insist that it is mad for Netanyahu to think that he can have it all: the strike on Iran, the steadfastness of America, the churlishness about a peace process, the apartments in Ramat Shlomo. In these strategic circumstances, Rabin and Sharon would have damned the apartments, and the small perspective that they represent. For all his lectures on history, Netanyahu lacks their historical amplitude. He cannot tear himself away from his numbers. I concur that Israel has the right to build in Ramat Shlomo: I have the right to jump off my building, which some of my Jewish readers may wish me to do, but it would not be the intelligent course of action…
                    *******************************
I observe in the Israeli leadership a rigid and insensible attachment to the status quo, which consists in a prosperous high-tech contentment protected by a wall and a bi-annual war in the north or the south. Some of this status-quo-ism results from the pettiness of Israeli politics, which is what Obama rightly wishes to challenge; but some of it results from a despair of the world, to which Obama is callously indifferent. Netanyahu’s ideal is no good: a normal life does not go with a despair of the world. He seems to regard Israel’s unpopularity as evidence of the justice of its cause, and in this dirty world I half-see his point; but Israel is not an island. It would be a monumental failure of statecraft to lead his country into complete isolation.

Wieseltier then expounds on the shortcomings of the present American attitude,

Yet some intellectual pressure must be put also on Obama’s airs, and on a central assumption behind his policy toward Israel. This assumption—one hears it in Washington all the time—is that our strategic objective must be to restore America’s standing in the Muslim world. This is an article of faith in the anti-Bush catechism, which imputes all foreign enmities to Obama’s predecessor. It contains an important element of truth: the United States has essential interests—and hundreds of thousands of troops—in Muslim lands, and insofar as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict complicates or harms those interests, the United States should desire it to be swiftly resolved.
                    *******************************
Which Muslims hate the United States, and which do not? Which of those anti-Americanisms are based upon American actions and alliances, and which are rooted in prior and autonomous beliefs that no American behavior will mollify? Which of those actions and alliances should be abandoned to realism, and which of them should be upheld as a matter of national honor, even if it drives realists crazy? (Driving realists crazy is God’s work.) And there are still more questions. To what extent does the American aim of improving our reputation in various Muslim societies entail American acceptance of the current state of those societies?
                      *******************************
I want Israel to make peace with the Palestinians even more than Obama does, because I love the Jewish state and I fear for it; but because I love it and fear for it, Obama’s adamant refusal to open his famously large heart to the depth of Israel’s anxieties, to offer Israel the same “strategic reassurance” that he weirdly offered China, to recognize that his coldness toward Israel has the effect of confirming its delegitimation in many corners of the globe—his unmoved pursuit of perfect impartiality and a middle way, the whole Gautama Obama thing—repels me. It is also bad community organizing.

Whether one agrees with all of Wieseltier’s points or not, his thought provoking analysis and frankness is worth a careful read.

Ignore those chain emails that are designed to inflame and distort, they over- simplify what is, and will remain, a very complex and important relationship.

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