I have a vivid memory of the day Israel was born as I both attended a meeting called by Ben-Gurion and joined the fighting that preceded and followed. Few remember that after decades of promises to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine (the Balfour Declaration) it took a very unusual constellation of international forces for the UN to vote to recognize the formation of the state of Israel. In effect, the majority of the Jewish leaders at the time felt that going for a state was too risky, and they favored seeking instead a greater level of autonomy for the Jewish community within the framework of the prevailing British colonial rule (“mandate”). It was left to Ben-Gurion to recognize the unique opportunity for the Soviet bloc and the U.S.—already engaged in a Cold War—to both to support the formation of a new state.
Israel at its sixty-second birthday faces a rather different constellation, one that re-raises the often-asked question whether it can survive in a sea of hostile Arab nations and rising Muslim fundamentalism. The big powers, other than the U.S., have long soured on Israel, which they see as an arrogant aggressor and colonizer. These powers now tend to side with the Palestinians, at least the relatively moderate ones, in particular Fatah on the West Bank. These powers also hope that the “Arab street” can be won over if the West “leans” on Israel to allow the formation of a Palestinian state. Israel has often played into the hands of its detractors, following policies that it considers essential for its survival (or its birthright), but which others see as unduly oppressive; for instance the blockade of Gaza. Bibi Netanyahu’s right-wing government and personal style have not served to endear Israel to the world.
New are the signs that the United States, often Israel’s only major ally, is repositioning itself. President Obama sees the issue more through the eyes of the plight of the Palestinian people than through the perspective of Jewish history. He is under pressure to show that he cannot be pushed around but finds it difficult to take on Karzai, China, or Russia. And a growing number of Jews in the U.S. have been alienated by Israel, which reduces the political costs for any moves Obama is contemplating, including imposing on Israel terms of a peace treaty that it considers detrimental to Israel’s basic security. No wonder the Israelis—who have a knack for combining living a full life (coffee houses and shopping centers are crowded) with an intense existential fear—worry about their very survival on the eve of their collective birthday.
As I see it, at the end of the day the United States will recall that if it imposes a solution on Israel—which all previous U.S. presidents and Obama have repeatedly declared a most treasured and reliable Middle East ally, a true democracy—no U.S. ally will feel secure. One can readily imagine the discussions in the inner circles of Riyadh, Cairo, and even Amman and Ankara: if they do this to the Israelis, imagine how much we can trust them. South Korea and Taiwan would also see reasons to be concerned. Moreover, although ‘leaning’ on Israel will win the United States some points in the Arab streets, the U.S.’s main allies in the Middle East strongly hint that they are currently much more concerned with a Shia bomb and Iran than with Israel, which they privately consider a counter-weight to Iran, now that Iraq is out of the picture.
All this does not suggest that the U.S. should refrain from investing itself in working out the differences between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as with various Arab states. But the high-handed, macho approach is likely to backfire. The main issues that remains to be addressed is who and how one will guarantee that the new Palestinian state will not turn into a Hamas-stan full of terrorists. What is to be done with the Israel settlers? Above all, who will defang Iran, and how?
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