As writers in this journal have asserted since its inaugural issue in June 1982, automatic U.S. endorsement of Israeli policies often puts at risk vital American interests in the Greater Middle East. There is a direct connection between U.S. interests in the Gulf and U.S. actions in the Palestine-Israel conflict (elegantly expressed by David Mack in these pages last January). If U.S. military and business representatives are to be welcome in the Gulf, American leaders have to face other political realities than those posed by the Israel lobby. The very containment of the dual threat that Israel fears most depends on its partnership with Arab and Muslim countries. Knowing all this, U.S. allies find the Clinton administration's subservience to Likud government policy almost incomprehensible. Even many longstanding supporters of Israel seem to think Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright could have done more on her first trip to Israel than simply declare failure and leave.
Expectations for the mission were so low that her breaking of a taboo - criticizing the government of Israel in public - passes for success. Having secured Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's promise to fight terrorism, she asked America's "best friend" in the region to reciprocate by freezing Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, and Israel bluntly refused. As Democratic administrations are famously reluctant to stand up to Israeli governments no matter how egregious the provocation, Albright's naked admission of failure can be characterized as a sort of victory. She at least laid down a marker. But she had a chance to do much more.
Secretary Albright has appropriate credentials for pressuring recalcitrant Israeli leaders. She can go to the Israeli public and say, here I stand, the embodiment of the U.S.-Israeli blended family; like you, I am concerned for the suffering of the Jewish people and want what is best for us. In addition, just before the trip Albright made a comparatively bold speech to the National Press Club in which she drew a parallel between Israeli settlement expansion and Palestinian violence. She even invoked U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, the bedrock on which a land-for-peace compromise rests.
The suicide bombings of the past summer gave Albright another layer of cover for moves that are impossible when Israel is under less pressure. As President Clinton put it, the trip had to go forward because "the bombers who kill Israelis are also trying to kill the peace effort and should not be allowed to succeed." Words to live by. But the opportunity was not maximized. With Israelis being killed and maimed in the streets of Jerusalem, the administration could have taken bolder steps, for Israel's own good. The Israeli government is too compromised to separate itself from its right-wing extremists; Palestinian leaders are too bereft of incentives to inspire a constituency for peace. The current crisis provides a rationale for the pressure that the Clinton administration is reluctant to use but that critics from both left (Jerome Segal in The Nation) and right (Peter Rodman in The Washington Post) have recently urged.
It is long past time for the United States to endorse a two-state solution, which even establishment entities like The Washington Post (September 9 editorial) and Henry Kissinger have recently recommended. Kissinger (in The Washington Post, August 24) suggests no specific borders, however, and this is precisely the sticking point; possession of the land is a national-security issue for both sides (see Ashley Beuttel' s research paper and Ian Lustick's book review). There can be no peace without a return of the West Bank to the Palestinians and the Golan Heights to the Syrians (see Alon Ben-Meir on this last point). In an Israel under different leadership, this might find resonance; polls indicate the public is ready for a divorce, even if it means giving back territory.
Israeli President Ezer Weizman himself asked Secretary Albright to put pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Likud leader's policies have failed, even by their own logic. They have not achieved a "secure" peace, despite the use of weapons of mass despair against the Palestinians - collective punishment, political detention, economic strangulation. Concerned friends of the Jewish state, like Kissinger, for example, know that someday the question may be asked, Who lost Israel? It will be easy to answer, since Middle East policy rests in the hands of a select few.
Ironically, the Clinton team is belatedly being criticized for failing to take action against peace-destroying Israeli policies when it could have made a difference. But the voices saying it may be too late were not heard last year, when it was not as late: before the United States had cast two vetoes in the Security Council to protect from universal censure Israel's construction of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. Perhaps there was private (and even scathing) administration criticism of the Israeli government, but it had little effect in moving Israel toward compromise or in providing support for pro-peace actions by Arab leaders. Of course, that was during the U.S. election season, when no political risks could be taken.
Netanyahu knows that Yasser Arafat is not directly responsible for the grisly bombings in West Jerusalem; the Israeli prime minister had actually been taking credit himself for "handling" Arafat and thereby preventing such acts up to July 1997. But not even an absolute dictator can base his legitimacy on the ability to control martyrs willing to die for a cause. Suicide bombers do not need state-sponsored computers or plutonium, just dynamite, nails, hopelessness and nerve. And they seem to be becoming more numerous and disciplined as Israel stymies the peace process and weakens Arafat.
The weapons of the weak are often potent in a contest of political will, whether in Vietnam, Lebanon or Palestine. By contrast, Netanyahu's "toughness" has made Jews insecure. More significant for the American national interest, U.S. tolerance for the policies of Likud is making Arabs and Muslims more and more anti-American (see Al Shayeji article). It has become very hard for Arafat to keep his distance from Hamas, as that is where Israeli policies have been pushing his people in ever greater numbers. The news photo of the embrace between the Palestinian president and Hamas leader Abdul Aziz Rantissi spoke volumes about national unity, solidarity and succession. However undemocratic their culture may seem to the West, Arab elites usually have to go where their people lead them.
Anne Joyce, September 1997