Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Seductive Logic of American Incentives

Israel's English language media went into overdrive this week over reports that the Obama Administration has offered Netanyahu's government a generous package of incentives, including twenty advanced stealth aircraft, merely in exchange for imposing a three month freeze on building in Jewish communities of Judea and Samaria, but definitely not in Jerusalem, but also in Jerusalem, and an American promise to end further requests for settlement freezes, as long as they get to keep requesting settlement freezes.

It is the nature of the diplomatic wrangling in which Obama has ensnared both the US and Israel, that specifics reported with great pomp just days ago must be repudiated with cynicism just days later, pending approval from the kingpins of Ramallah - Abbas and Fayyad. It is therefore useless to discuss such issues in specificity, because let's face it - the American administration is too weak and too beholden to Arab interests and Arab pressure to force the Palestinians into returning to the negotiating table under any conditions. Thus, whatever agreements Netanyahu makes with Obama today on issues that the Palestinians may find objectionable will be vetoed by Abbas tomorrow, or the day after, or in three months, forcing the Americans to redouble pressure on the only negotiating partner doing any negotiating - the Israelis.

I do not meant to imply malice on the part of the Obama Administration, not at all. The present situation is a natural byproduct of linking, with good intentions but fuzzy logic, the success of American policy throughout the Middle East with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, thereby placing all of America's most vital chestnuts into the Palestinian nutcracker. When the Obama Administration decided to offer the lives of American soldiers deployed in Baghdad and Kabul as a bargaining chip to Palestinian negotiators, it lost the ability to function as an honest broker that can impose conditions on both sides, and became hostage to Ramallah's demands, with time developing a Stockholm syndrome to boot.

It is therefore useless for us to debate the settlement freeze, it's specifics, or the possibility for future settlement freezes. Like the American President, on these issues we should simply pick up the hotline to the Arabs and begin taking dictation. Instead, I would like to focus on the sole American settlement-freeze incentive which is relatively isolated to the bilateral relationship with Israel - the much talked about package of 20 F-35 stealth fighters.

Israel retaining a qualitative military superiority over its neighbors has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy in the Levant since the 1973 war. As Lee Smith has written, by making Israel too powerful to defeat, America forced most of the Arabs to end their flirtations with pan-Arabism and Soviet communism, and crawl to Washington for their security and concessions from Israel. In a stroke of foreign policy genius, Kissinger turned a small, stubborn country of three or four million Jews into American leverage over two hundred million Arabs.

Such strategic foundations justified four decades of American military assistance to Israel, but it is not clear if the paradigm Kissinger created still holds, at least in the minds of the Obama Administration. America has many more pieces on the board now than in 1973, and an impossibly complex set of regional interests that a unitary focus on Israeli strength is no longer able to single-handedly manage. Indeed, in a region which the Obama Administration is desperate to extricate itself from, Israeli strength remains an American leverage over the Arabs, but in reverse, to be bargained away in exchange for Arab cooperation on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

The crux of the issue is like this: If a strong, assertive Israel remains a cornerstone of American policy in dealing with the Arabs, then it is an American interest to supply the Jewish state with the armaments it needs to retain its military edge, regardless of progress on the peace process, or lack thereof. In this case, Israeli concessions to the Palestinians on settlements are irrelevant to wider American interests in the region. If Israel does not make these concessions, it will receive the armaments regardless, maybe next month, or next year, or under the next American government, but it will receive them because America needs a strong Israel.

However, if a strong, assertive Israel is no longer a cornerstone of American policy in its relations with the Arabs, then whatever armaments Israel receives in the context of bilateral negotiations now it will anyways not be allowed to use without American approval, except in a case of clear self-defense. The F-35 is not a defensive but an offensive platform, designed to project power and defend (or impose) interests across borders - and in Israeli hands, to impose Israeli power and Israeli interests on their Arab neighbors, including deflating Syrian nuclear ambitions or guarantying upstream water flow to the Jordan River. If a strong, assertive Israel is no longer the foundation of American policy in the region, then it will not be allowed to project its power and interests, with Iran's nuclear program a case in point.

That is not to say that America's commitment to Israel's basic security has been undermined. American support for Israel is too broad-based, and too deep, for any American president to violate the covenant of Israel's survival. Israel will continue to receive the weapons it needs for self-defense - witness American largess in building up Israel's missile shield - but American confidence in the utility of Israeli power projection to American interests has been broken. Therefore, whatever additional capability Israel receives for power projection has already been neutered in the womb, rendering the platforms of power projection, such as the F-35, utterly worthless.

By bargaining away settlement freezes for fighter jets, Israel is increasing its military capability but losing the freedom of action to deploy that capability in a way that meaningfully enhances Israeli security. Meanwhile, vital Israeli negotiating positions vis a vis the Palestinians are being compromised, perhaps irretrievably, with no tangible diplomatic gains. Indeed, concessions designed to provide Israel with diplomatic deterrence are instead being used to justify ever deepening concessions. The original, one time Settlement Freeze has now spawned Son of Settlement Freeze, and in three months will produce a Daughter of Settlement Freeze, and so on, until there is an entire family, with not so much as a thank you from the American President for allowing the peace process to limp along on the sore back of Israeli concessions and unchallenged Palestinian rejectionism.

Twenty advanced warplanes cost the Obama Administration nothing - it's the equivalent of a $3 billion jobs stimulus program for Lockheed Martin. Nor does another squadron of aircraft, no matter how advanced, contribute meaningfully to Israel's security. The seductive logic of transient American incentives being finagled for permanent Israeli interests - at the very least, constituting vital negotiating leverage with the Palestinians - is in fact empty of substance. If concessions are to be made, then they must be traded for nothing less than tangible diplomatic achievements in the context of final status negotiations. Until then, Israel should reconcile itself with a frustrated and misguided American President badly in need of a foreign policy victory leading up to the 2012 campaign.

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