Sunday, April 25, 2010

U.S. isn't a neutral mediator between Israelis and Palestinians

U.S. isn't a neutral mediator between Israelis and Palestinians
By Zvi Bar'el
"We can't desire peace more than the parties involved," "we can't force the parties to peace," - these and many similar slogans were the ABCs that generations of American leaders instilled in their Israeli counterparts. If even the United States "can't want peace more than the parties," what's there to fuss about?

But who are the parties involved? Isn't the U.S. administration also a party, with a strategic interest in peace between Israel and the Arabs? When is an American interest at stake and when an interest of the parties? When is the United States a partner and when is it a mediator, willing even to pay for the right to mediate?

The United States is not a neutral mediator that supplies the parties with its good services, a table to negotiate on, some snacks and muzak. The United States is an interested party, a superpower whose position in the Middle East and around the globe is based on its economic and military strength. It's also based on the Americans' ability to leverage those advantages for political action, to set the world's agenda and win legitimacy for waging wars and making peace.

The United States drafts the map of world threats, from Iran and Afghanistan to Russia's stockpile of nuclear missiles and Al-Qaida in Yemen. The United States also recruits other countries and international opinion to combat these threats. It decided to include the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in its threat list, and contrary to its own slogan, America is actively forcing a solution on the parties - and fortunately so.

We may argue about Washington's vision and style, and wonder whether it was wise to pick construction in East Jerusalem of all battles or to treat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu like an unwelcome door-to-door salesman. But we can't fail to appreciate U.S. President Barack Obama's diplomatic determination and the political risk he has taken by marking Israel as a peace-refusenik.

The United States is not doing that "for the parties." On the face of it, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a strategic threat. More Israelis or Palestinians dying, or more Qasams in the south or Katyushas in the north won't bring down any state - most certainly not the United States. Solving the conflict won't stop the Iranian nuclear race and won't persuade India or Pakistan to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Syria won't cut ties with Tehran even if Israel recognizes Hamas.

But the conflict becomes a strategic threat when it endangers America's stature on the global stage. When this is the threat, the United States can no longer afford merely to let the sides "desire" peace and gloomily watch from the sidelines as they continue to eat into each other's flesh. It's not Obama's personal pride that's at stake, and it's not the enormous U.S. aid to Israel. The Americans now see that when put to the test, this aid is not enough to help them implement their policy.

Israel is challenging the United States' strategic status. This provocation goes beyond the question of Israeli sovereignty versus American might. Idiotically, Israel is competing against itself because U.S. status is a fundamental part of Israel's strength. And when Israel is ready to demolish this foundation for the benefit of the bullies in East Jerusalem and the West Bank outposts, Israel puts its own citizens at risk.

Faced with Israeli foolishness, Washington can no longer afford to merely shrug. Too many American interests are at stake. So how will Obama deal with the Israeli naysayer? Will he renounce his demand to freeze construction? Will he present Israel with an obligatory work plan for reaching peace with the Palestinians? And to cut to the chase, will we see a rerun of the famous scene from the tenure of secretary of state James Baker, who left Israel a phone number it could call when it got serious about peace?

Washington has since taught the world that when it draws its map of interests, it is willing to use its military to obtain them. If Israeli-Palestinian peace is not that much of an interest, Washington should make this clear to both parties, lest they put too much hope on American maneuvering or, heaven forbid, labor under the impression that American pressure is mere pretense....

Is it "Israel" that has become a negation of the US presence in the Mideast or the particular faction that favors the nasty combination of ethnic cleansing plus incitement to a US war with Iran?

To what degree does a body of opinion exist in Israel today that would extend from, say, Zvi Bar'el to Gideon Levy ? That would constitute a political position on Israel's proper role in the world that Americans concerned with national security could comfortably accept--a position that could both offer security to the Israeli people and leave the U.S. free to extricate itself from the trap of hostility toward activist Islam that today so imperils the security of Americans.....?.