Wednesday, May 25, 2011

American Pressure, Israeli Resistance and the 1967 Lines

The furor over Obama's mentioning of the 1967 lines (more precisely, the 1949 armistice lines) as a basis for territorial negotiations with the Palestinians is entirely overblown. Actually, there were multiple furors here. First, some pro-Israel advocates and Republican Jewish vote-seekers lambasted the President for "throwing Israel under a bus", and the like. This was followed by a counter-furor by the Jeffrey Goldberg wing of the pro-Israel movement, which trends more sympathetic to the Administration, and a variety of assorted "we wish Israel had never been created, but since it was, and we're scared to be called anti-Semites, we support it, meanwhile condemning it day in and day out" bloviating hobgoblins - Andrew Sullivan comes to mind. This was then followed by a counter-counter-furor by the first group against the second group, calling them anti-Semites, Kapos, JINOs (Jews in Name Only), etc., succeeded by a counter-counter-counter-furor by the second group against the first group for calling them mean names and making them cry, and so on.

As tempted as I am to take sides, or maybe carve out my own personal furor, I'll simply restate that the entire issue of the '67 lines constituting a basis for negotiations is essentially irrelevant, and needs to be seen in its historical context. The US has always preferred that Israel make territorial withdrawals from lands claimed by the Arabs, and not only from the West Bank, Gaza, Golan, Sinai, and Lebanon, but from anywhere and everywhere it could be coerced to do so. For instance, take Operation Alpha, a joint attempt in 1955 by the British and Americans to pressure Israel into accepting a land link between Egypt and Jordan that would run through the Negev.
In contacts that the US and British embassies made in Cairo with Nasser and his Foreign Minister, Mahmud Fawzi, primarily in the first half of 1955, it was clarified to them that the Egyptians had a “desperate” need for a land connection with Jordan. Thus, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Fawzi paid a visit to Washington on June 24 to talk with Dulles and George Allen, he reduced the question of whether the agreement would stand or fall to the territorial continuity question, and to a demand that Israel relinquish the Negev. The establishment of Israel, according to him, divided the Arab world, by creating a physical separation. For example, he said, if he wanted to travel by car from Cairo to Damascus, he would have to receive permission from Mr. Sharett (then the Israeli Prime Minister), and this situation was unacceptable to the Arabs.

The Anglo-American pressure on Israel to concede on the subject of the Negev increased after September 27, 1955, when Nasser published the details of the arms transaction he had signed with the USSR. Part of the American and British moves were public knowledge. Israel was principally shocked by the speech that Anthony Eden gave in Guildhall, London, on November 9, 1955. Eden called for a territorial solution to the conflict based on a compromise be made between the partition borders and the armistice lines, clearly suggesting an Israeli concession in the Negev.
Israel's situation in 1955 was precarious, to say the least. By this time, the Soviets Union had fully recovered from WWII and began actively subverting British and American influence in the Middle East, primarily through massive shipments of advanced weapons to Arab states, which directly threatened Israel's survival. Meanwhile, the only other global powers capable of countering Soviet armaments - the British, at the close of their empire, handing off the torch of hegemony to the Americans - were actively plotting to dismember a tiny, poor country of scraggly Holocaust survivors and refugees from Arab lands.

Then, as now, Israel's leadership responded how it always has and always will - it resisted. Ben Gurion didn't rush out with a plan of his own, in order to "take the initiative", reduce international pressure and give the Arabs slightly less than Washington wanted. Instead, the "Old Man" stood firm in the face of an unprecedented challenge, with one superpower arming Israel's enemies to the teeth, and the other actually plotting, in secret, to undermine Israel's internationally sanctioned territorial integrity against her will. Operation Alpha is notable for the sheer contempt shown by Washington towards Israeli rights and territorial interests, which, as for any other nation state, are intrinsically tied to security, economics and national identity. It was not, however, the last instance of American pressure being brought to bear against Israel to concede territory to the Arabs.

Just as today, in response to American pressure, Israel's center-right Prime Minister speaks of the '67 borders as "indefensible", more than forty years ago, in 1969, Israel's center-left Foreign Minister Abba Eban, the consummate diplomat par excellence, said the following to Germany's Der Spiegel (translated):
"We have openly said that the map will never again be the same as on June 4, 1967. For us, this is a matter of security and of principles. The June map is for us equivalent to insecurity and danger. I do not exaggerate when I say that it has for us something of a memory of Auschwitz."
Remember, this was in 1969, years before any Israeli settlement of the West Bank took place. Israel's refusal to return to the '67 lines is not about protecting its settlements, though of course, this issue adds certain layers of practical, emotional and political complexity. Rather, Israel's narrow coastal plain, whether populated heavily or sparsely, in 1969 or in 2011, is fundamentally, chronically insecure without some minimum control over the mountainous ridges which overlook it. The insecurity of Israel's coastal plain is an immovable feature of geography which no peace agreement can ever mollify, but which can be durably addressed only by controlling the West Bank's hilly spine.

In the many decades since Israel's founding, and certainly after the Jewish State's victory over the Arabs in 1967, there has not been a single American President who has not pressured Israel to relinquish territory claimed by the Arabs. In this sense, Obama and his supporters are right to point out that American policy has long considered the 1949 armistice lines a basis for territorial negotiations between Israel and the Arabs.

Likewise, however, in the many decades since Israel's founding, and certainly after the Jewish State's victory over the Arabs in 1967, every single Israeli government has resisted American pressure to relinquish territory to the Arabs, without exception. It should, therefore, only stun the stupid, or the historically uninformed, were this Israeli government, or the ones that follow it, to continue the long Israeli tradition of resisting American pressure on territorial concessions to the Arabs.

Portraying longstanding and quite public Israeli resistance to American pressure on territorial withdrawal as some unprecedented act of contempt against America, a slap in Obama's face, or the act of an ungrateful recipient of American treasure - a point of view peddled by Andrew Sullivan, among others - is nothing less than vapid, emotion-driven demagoguery.

Bloviating hobgoblins, led by their leader and my personal pet project, would like you to believe that this time, it's different. Before, they claim, America had no real interests in Israeli territorial concessions, since no American interests were at stake, except for a general desire to ensure stability and peace in the Middle East. Now, however, an alignment of critical factors have turned America's ability to extract territorial concessions from Israeli into the prism through which the US deals with the Arab world. Israel's intransigence, they assert, is single-handedly murdering American credibility with the Arab world, cutting Obama's great vision for peace off at the knees.

However, this perspective is long on dreamy, emotionalized narrative and short on history. America has been pressuring Israel to make territorial concessions to the Arabs since 1955 precisely because it saw opportunities for itself in doing so. Operation Alpha was planned in support of vital American interests, to ensure that Egypt's Nasser, and the Suez canal would not fall under Soviet influence, which they eventually did. The stakes were no less bigger then than they are now; Nasser was a firebrand, inciting pan-Arab revolution and aggression against Western interests throughout the third world and welcoming Soviet influence. America and Britain saw an opportunity to keep Nasser contained by offering up a chunk of Israel, at the time a small, weak, thinly populated state, surely not a country that could resist American and British demands. Israel did resist, it prevailed, and in doing so it earned respect and confidence. What good is an ally which cannot define and vigorously defend its own vital interests?

History has demonstrated that the US is committed to Israeli territorial integrity only when Israel is prepared to fight to maintain that territorial integrity, including, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, by resisting US pressure on territorial concessions to the Arabs which run counter to core Israeli interests. This doesn't mean that Israel will never make territorial concessions, for indeed, it has, but never exclusively as a consequence of American pressure, no matter how fierce, and always in exchange for clear, rational benefits towards its own interests, as it and only it defines them.

American policymakers know this. President Obama knows this. Mentioning the 1967 lines wasn't about picking a fight with Israel; it was throwing a rhetorical bone about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Arab masses which the President was addressing. As for the Palestinians, Obama slapped them across the face with both hands - no to unilateral adventurism at the UN, no to East Jerusalem and yes to an interim territorial deal first proposed by Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and which the Palestinians have already rejected. This interim deal normalizes Palestinian national life but leaves core Palestinian demands unresolved indefinitely, to be resolved only by negotiations with Israel, while solidifying Israeli control and legitimacy over Jerusalem, settlements and the Jordan Valley.  Even a vigorously pro-settlement advocate such as I have problems seeing this as an anti-Israel speech.

American policy in the Middle East will always seem pressing, but with the exception that the oil must flow, its interests are essentially tactical and fleeting - impacting the balance of power, blocking regional or international competitors, and so on. When it fails, America can always remove, regroup and rededicate itself to pursuing the regional interests it views as important in one generation or another. In contrast, Israeli interests are strategic and permanent. Israel cannot escape its geopolitical reality, and it will never subject its security and territorial integrity to the vagaries of American policy fancy when these run counter to core Israeli interests.

The Americans have always asked Israel to relinquish territory to the Arabs, and they always will. The Americans are dealing with the Arabs, and need to take Arab desires into account, or at least appear to be doing so publicly. Where such American pressure runs counter to Israeli interests, the Israelis will resist, as they always have. In the past, when the Israelis resisted, the Americans never pushed the issue so as to cause a rupture in relations. Some are urging the US should do just that, but they are a fringe among policymakers. This dynamic of pressure and resistance to territorial concessions is built into the US-Israeli bilateral relationship, and signifies nothing important in and of itself, no matter how hard Andrew Sullivan beats his slipper against the keyboard.

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