This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 2.
Last week, John Kerry appeared with British foreign secretary William Hague in London, and they congratulated one another on concluding their nuclear deal with Iran. Kerry expressed American gratitude for Britain’s support. “We are determined to press forward,” he said, “and give further life to this very special relationship and to our common objectives.”
It was President John F. Kennedy who first extended the concept of a “special relationship” beyond Britain to include Israel. In December 1962, Kennedy met with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Golda Meir, in Palm Beach, Florida, and the American memorandum of conversation reported his assurance in these words: “The United States, the President said, has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East really comparable only to that which it has with Britain over a wide range of world affairs.”
The State Department disliked this. A few months earlier, the Near East and South Asia Bureau had put together a memo on U.S.-Israel relations. “Israel’s proposals for a special relationship with the U.S. would be self-defeating if executed,” it argued. “We consider it important not to give in to Israeli and domestic pressures for a special relationship in national security matters.” But Kennedy spoke the words, and even if their definition remained foggy, they provided some reassurance to Israel every time an American president or secretary of state uttered them.
Which is why it’s worth noting that John Kerry doesn’t utter them. To the best I can determine, in his present job, he hasn’t ever described the U.S.-Israel relationship as “special.” Susan Rice, while at the UN, did so on several occasions, and Senator Kerry did it when he ran for president back in 2004 and again to AIPAC in 2009. But as best as I can tell (and I would welcome contrary evidence), he hasn’t done it as secretary of state, and that stands in striking contrast to his repeated invocation of the “special relationship” with Britain.
For example, last February he visited London and said this (Hague beaming at his side):
When you think of everything that binds the United States and Great Britain—our common values, our long shared history, our ties of family, in my case, personal and friendship—there is a reason why we call this a special relationship, or as President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron wrote, really, a partnership of the heart. It is that.
In June, Kerry (again with Hague at his side) stressed the “special relationship,” which he declared to be “grounded in so much—our history, our values, our traditions. It is, without question, an essential, if not the essential relationship.”
And in September, when Britain’s parliament voted down a motion to join the U.S. in the use of force in Syria, Kerry rushed to declare the “special relationship” intact:
The relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom has often been described as special, essential. And it has been described thusly, quite simply, because it is. It was before a vote the other day in parliament, and it will be for long afterwards after that vote. Our bond, as William [Hague] has just said, is bigger than one vote; it’s bigger than one moment in history. It’s about values. It’s about rules of the road, rules by which human beings try to organize their societies and offer people maximum freedom and opportunity, respecting rights, and finding a balance in a very complicated world. And we have no better partner in that effort than Great Britain, and we are grateful for that.
Quite early, the Obama administration earned a reputation in British public opinion for showing insufficient respect for the “special relationship,” and Kerry may see his mission as repairing that impression. But then the Obama administration stands no higher in Israeli public opinion, and Kerry sees no need to do any work of repair (and a few things he has said have heaped insult on injury).
President Obama does refer to the “special relationship” with Israel, but coming from him, the phrase means a bit less than it once did. That’s because he’s upgraded Britain to something even higher. On the eve of Obama’s visit to Britain in May 2011, he and British prime minister David Cameron published a joint op-ed in the London Times that included this sentence: “Ours is not just a special relationship, it is an essential relationship—for us and for the world.” (The headline: “Not Just Special, But An Essential Relationship.”) Suddenly, the word “essential” started cropping up in references to the relationship with Britain (see also two of the Kerry quotes above). “Essential” is now the new platinum card in relations with the United States, and Britain alone holds one. (That’s why having Britain on board the Iran deal was so important to the Obama administration, and it’s why Hague was assigned the role of setting Israel straight: “We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine this agreement and we will make that very clear to all concerned.” How pleased he must have been to categorize Israel among the world’s “anybodies.”)
Still, while Obama may have promoted Britain, he didn’t demote Israel. And as John Kennedy made clear more than fifty years ago, the two belong in a league of their own. Just what makes a “special relationship”? It’s more than democracy—the world is full of democracies. It’s not “shared values,” since American values are widely shared around the world. What compels the United States openly to acknowledge two “special relationships” is that two foreign states embody old cultures to which the American public feels profoundly and uniquely indebted.
Given that debt, the U.S. government assumes the obligation to show a bit of respect and work a little harder to make its case, when its biggest-knows-best policies impinge on the interests of those two states. When they dissent, as Britain did over Syria and Israel now does over Iran, it’s their privilege to do so and still win American praise as “special” friends who are entitled to speak their minds freely. For an example of how it’s done, see the Kerry quote above, following the British balk on Syria. So far, there’s no equivalent for Israel over Iran.
The U.S. government’s recognition of a “special relationship” doesn’t create a fact, it acknowledges a debt felt deeply by the American people. John Kerry apparently doesn’t fully grasp that reality in regard to Israel. But then, little in his Mideast diplomacy suggests that reality constrains him anyway.
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This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 13.
Jonathan Tobin, writing at the Commentary blog, rightly dismisses as dangerous any Israeli attempt to play China or Russia off the United States out of frustration with the Iran policy of the Obama administration. When it comes to dealing with the immediate threat posed by Iran, only Washington has superpower leverage, and if Israel wanders off the reservation, it will only damage itself.
But Jonathan makes a further claim: “Israel’s long-term safety must be seen as linked to the ability of the United States to maintain its status as the leader of the free world. Even at times of great tension with Washington, Israelis must never forget that it is not just that they have no viable alternatives to the U.S. but that American power remains the best hope of freedom for all nations.” This “linkage” is problematic, and its acceptance could blind Israelis to what they need to do to survive through the next half-century.
The problem with American power, like all power, is that it waxes and wanes. We have become used to the notion that U.S. preeminence in the world and the Middle East is a constant. But it isn’t so. Geography has rendered the United States the most self-contained superpower in history. As a result, it goes through manic bouts of interventionism and isolationism, and sometimes awakens to the responsibilities of its power too late. It did so during the Holocaust, and it did so during the first years of Israeli independence, when the fledgling Jewish state had to look to the Soviet Union and France for the arms essential to its defense. The simple truth is that Israel cannot rely on the United States to do just the right thing at just the right time. That’s at the heart of the crisis of confidence between the United States and Israel over Iran, and its sources run deeper than the particular world view of Barack Obama.
More than six years ago, before Obama even declared his candidacy, I told the Conference of Presidents that “America’s era in the Middle East will end one day,” and that “it is possible that in twenty years’ time, America will be less interested and engaged in the Middle East. What is our Plan B then?” Obama accelerated that timetable, but the long-term trend has been clear for years. And one doesn’t have to be a “declinist” to realize that the United States can lead the free world and still write off the Middle East, which isn’t part of it. That’s precisely the mood in America today.
Hedging has been a fundamental principle of Zionism from its inception. That’s how it managed to outlast the fall of two empires that dominated the Middle East in the pre-state decades. When political Zionism emerged, the Ottoman Empire still held sway over the land, and Theodor Herzl went as a supplicant to the sultan’s palace in Istanbul. As late as 1912, the future first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and the future second president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, went to Istanbul to study Ottoman law, on the assumption that they would have to build the Yishuv under the same Ottoman power that had ruled the country for four centuries. (Here they are, looking like the deputies to the Ottoman parliament they planned to become.) A few years later, Ottoman power collapsed. Fortunately, Chaim Weizmann had laid the foundations for the support of the Allied victors, above all the British, whose empire now expanded to encompass the core of the Middle East.
British dominance in Palestine lasted for thirty years, during which London became the center of Zionist political activity. Britain was the mother of democracy, bastion of freedom, and home to a strong tradition of philo-Judaism and Christian Zionism. Much was made of “shared values.” But Britain, after facilitating the remarkable growth of the Yishuv, backtracked on its commitment to Zionism at the very moment of paramount Jewish need. It was Ben-Gurion who understood that the world war would bring down the British empire across Asia and Africa, Palestine included, and who sought an alliance with the ascendant United States. Still, years would pass before the United States would admit Israel to a “special relationship,” leaving Israel to fend for itself in the world’s arms market. That insecurity drove Israel to ally with Britain and France against Nasser’s Egypt—to Washington’s chagrin—and to build a nuclear capability with French assistance—in defiance of Washington.
Those days may seem distant, and Israel and the United States have had an extraordinary run. But history stands still for no people, and if our history has taught us anything about geopolitics, it is this: what is will not be. However enamored we are of the status quo, Israel needs a Plan B, and it has to consist of more than editorially flogging America for failing to maintain its forward positions in the Middle East. The State of Israel, like Zionism before it, must be agile enough to survive a power outage of any ally, and to plug in elsewhere. If Israel’s long-term safety really did depend on America’s will to govern the world, then it would be a poor substitute for Judaism’s own survival mechanism, by which the Jewish people outlasted the fall of countless host empires. But Israel’s future depends upon something within its own grasp: its ability to read the changing map of the world, to register the ebb and flow of global power, and to adapt as necessary.
Let us pray for the perpetuation of America’s power to do good in the world. Let us prepare for something less.
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This evening, I will have the privilege of presiding over the very first opening exercises of the newly-established Shalem College. As a historian, I am cautious in how I deploy the adjective “historic” for a current event. But I have a strong premonition that the opening day of Shalem College will earn a place of distinction in the history of Israel.
Shalem College students will study Jewish thought and Greek philosophy, Islamic theology and Western history, modern Israel and economic theory, statistics and music. Fully half of all studies are given over to the core curriculum, taught through the close reading of texts. And it is accomplished principally in small classes, around the seminar table, where some of the best Israeli students will learn and debate the great ideas that have animated the Western world, the Middle East, and the people of Israel.
Tonight’s event is first and foremost a warm embrace of the fifty undergraduate students enrolled into our inaugural class. They come from the length and breadth of Israel, from a wide range of social backgrounds and traditions. Also in attendance will be hundreds of well-wishers, who have offered moral and material support for what has been an enormously challenging endeavor.
The founding of a new college, inspired by the American tradition of higher education, had to overcome many obstacles, which at times appeared insurmountable. Many of those who commended us upon the initiative must have thought in their hearts that realizing it was a bridge too far. And a few didn’t just think it—they told us so.
There were so many moving parts. The plan had to be submitted for approval to Israel’s Council for Higher Education—an official accrediting body charged with maintaining the most rigorous standards in Israeli higher education. It is the job of the Council’s professional committees to challenge each and every one of an applicant’s assumptions. And challenge they did—a four-year process from which we learned enormously, and that greatly improved our program. In January of this year, we celebrated the grant of our cherished accreditation.
Scaling up from a research institute could not be done without widening the many circles of stakeholders. We have recruited outstanding faculty, committed to the vision of the college and devoted to its mission. We have been fortunate to enjoy the confidence of long-standing supporters, and we have discovered new friends courageous enough to invest their philanthropy in an educational startup. And we have been applauded by leaders from all walks of Israeli life, who have joined our public and academic councils, and who have been generous with their time and advice as we navigate unfamiliar waters.
A college also requires physical space: lecture halls and seminar rooms, a library, a student lounge, faculty and administrative offices, and space that invites spontaneous conversations and the sharing of ideas. In other words, a college needs a campus—and through the good offices of the Jewish Agency, we have found an initial home in a magnificent building in the Agency’s bucolic Kiryat Moriah educational campus in Jerusalem, a few minutes’ walk from the Haas and Sherover Promenades, from which we have a splendid view of the Old City.
The capstone of these efforts has been the search for students of such high caliber that they could study anywhere in Israel. For a new institution, there could be no more daunting challenge. The good names of universities and colleges are built over generations. A top-achieving prospective student, with a choice of many options, must be a pioneer to enroll in a fledgling institution that has yet to make its mark.
In the course of student recruitment, we discovered, much to our delight, that such young pioneers do exist in Israel—highly motivated young men and women who have always loved being part of something new and challenging, who flocked to our open houses and who then subjected themselves to our rigorous admissions process.
We have an extraordinarily gifted team, eager and ready to carry us forward. The indefatigable and indispensable Daniel Polisar has spent almost every waking hour strategizing each move, consulting with colleagues, and winning the admiration of friends both for his broad vision and his exacting attention to every detail. Daniel Gordis has been our top diplomat, traveling long hours to reach influential people and explaining with persuasive passion why Israel needs Shalem College. And David Messer, now our board chair, has provided crucial resources for the ramp-up and has become an integral part of the team, offering invaluable advice and assistance at key junctures. Behind these three stands a top-notch professional cadre of administrators, in every area from development to admissions, who have kept all the many balls high in the air with true aplomb. Thanks to their brilliance, my job as college president is far easier than it would otherwise be: indeed, they all eagerly assume burdens most presidents bear alone. This is their day.
This team is supported by an energetic and generous board, which has provided crucial guidance at many a crossroads. Their breadth of experience in areas where we ourselves have little has spared us many a mistake that might have delayed our opening. In particular, Yair Shamir, who served as board chair from 2008 until his recent appointment as Minister of Agriculture, added Israeli gravitas and infused the project with his entrepreneurial spirit and good humor.
This is an opportunity to recall the faith in this project shown by the late Zalman C. Bernstein, of blessed memory. He always regarded the research-oriented Shalem Center as a pillar that would serve to buttress Shalem College, and he committed to support the College when the time came. The Tikvah Fund has honored that commitment with great generosity, and its largesse is a mainstay of Shalem College. We are grateful both for its support, and for the encouragement and extraordinarily sage advice and guidance offered to us by its chairman, Roger Hertog.
Much work is behind us, but we are keenly aware that much, much more lies ahead of us. Until now, we were planners. Now, with young men and women streaming into our building, we are educators—in addition to the now-multiplied tasks of planning on which our further growth depends. There are hurdles to come. But today we want to share the sheer joy we feel at seeing students, eager and ready, filing into class. Shalem College has come alive. May it realize all our dreams, and give strength to Israel.
Martin Kramer is the president of Shalem College.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 24.
As both Jonathan Tobin and Jonathan Marks have previously written here [at Commentary], University of Pennsylvania political scientist Ian Lustick, author of a recent op-ed promoting the “one-state solution” and featured prominently in the New York Times, isn’t an outlier. To the contrary, American academe is full of Lusticks: 60-something Jewish radicals who went through some transient phase of simplistic far-left Zionism before discovering that the real Israel is complex. Disillusioned, they rode their leftism to minor eminence as repentants in departments and centers of Middle Eastern studies, where Jewish critics of Israel provide ideal cover for the real haters. Such Jews used to be devotees of a Palestinian state, but now they’re scrambling to keep up with the freakish fad of a “one-state solution” set off by the late Edward Said’s own famous conversion (announced, of course, on the pages of the New York Times, in 1999). Because Lustick’s piece ran in the Times, it was a big deal for some American Jews who still see that newspaper as a gatekeeper of ideas. In Israel, it’s passed virtually unnoticed.
Whatever the article’s intrinsic interest, it’s particularly fascinating as a case study in intellectual self-contradiction. For Lustick has reversed his supposedly well-considered, scientifically informed assessment of only a decade ago, without so much as a shrug of acknowledgement.
Let’s briefly recap Lustick’s dismissive take on the two-state solution in his new article. It is “an idea whose time has passed,” it is neither “plausible or even possible,” it’s a “chimera,” a “fantasy.” The “obsessive focus on preserving the theoretical possibility of a two-state solution is as irrational as rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” Conclusion? “The pretense that negotiations under the slogan of ‘two states for two peoples’ could lead to such a solution must be abandoned.” In fact, negotiations do actual harm: “Diplomacy under the two-state banner is no longer a path to a solution but an obstacle itself. We are engaged in negotiations to nowhere.”
The ultimate two-stater
Yet only a decade ago, Lustick thought that the success of the “peace process” in achieving its aim of two states wasn’t only plausible and possible. It was inevitable. Lustick explained his thesis in a lengthy 2002 interview peppered with analogies and metaphors, including this one:
I like to think of it as a kind of gambler throwing dice, except it’s history that’s throwing the dice. Every throw of the dice is like a diplomatic peace process attempt. In order to actually succeed, history has got to throw snake eyes, 2. And, you know, that’s not easy, you have to keep throwing the dice. Eventually, you’re going to throw a 2. All of the leadership questions and accidents of history, the passions of both sides, the torturous feelings of suffering, the political coalitions, the timing of elections will fall into place.
What is Lustick saying here? Remember that the odds of throwing snake eyes on any given toss of the dice are 36 to 1, so only a fool or an idiot would despair after, say, a dozen or even two dozen throws. Even failure is just a prelude to success, since as long as you keep throwing, “eventually, you’re going to throw a 2.” The old sawhorse that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is belied by the dice-thrower, who repeats the same action knowing that each result will be different. And that’s why the United States keeps repeating the diplomatic moves that Lustick now finds so tiresome. The “peace processors” are just adhering to his logic, circa 2002, which guarantees that one of these initiatives is destined to succeed—provided there are enough of them.
And what did Lustick in 2002 have to say to those Israelis who “want the West Bank and Gaza to remain permanently under Israeli rule”? “You will have to roll a 13,” Lustick told them.
But you can’t roll a 13, which is to say that the right has no plan for how it can successfully keep the territories anymore. They don’t even advocate as a realistic option expelling the Palestinians. So they have no plan. So if you are the right and you know you have to roll a 13, the strategy is, don’t let the dice get rolled, keep trying to stop every initiative and subvert it if it gets started…. It’s the only rational thing to do in order to prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution.
So the Israeli version of a one-state solution—an Israel from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean—was the hopeless cause of dead-enders who defied “history” itself. In 2002, Lustick was certain that “one of these days,” Israel would leave the West Bank:
Israel is caught between the inability to make the issue disappear by making the West Bank look like Israel, and the inability to make it disappear by actually withdrawing, by getting through that regime barrier, that regime threshold. Some day, one of these days, that regime threshold is going to be crossed.
The Palestinian version of the one-state option? Lustick didn’t even mention it in 2002.
So Lustick was the ultimate two-state believer. I don’t think even the inveterate “peace processors,” whom he now dismisses so contemptuously, ever assumed that repeated failures would bring them closer to their goal. Lustick did believe it: one couldn’t “prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution,” and it was just a matter of time before “that threshold is going to be crossed.” So certain was Lustick of the inexorable logic of the two-state solution that he believed even Hamas had acquiesced in it. And because Israel had spurned Hamas, Israel had squandered an opportunity to turn it into a “loyal opposition.”
Here lies the problem—perhaps dishonesty is a better word—in Lustick’s latest piece. Lustick ’13 never takes on Lustick ’02, to explain why “history,” destined to lead to two states only a few years ago, is now destined to end in one state. It’s tempting to make light of the seemingly bottomless faith of “peace processors,” and I’ve done it myself, with relish. But the case Lustick made for them in 2002 had a certain logic. The case he’s made against them in 2013 is weak. Indeed, he never really builds much of a case at all.
Is it the number of settlers? If so, he doesn’t say so. Lustick knows how many settlers there are, and he numbered them in a lecture in February. In 2002, he says, there were 390,000 (West Bank and East Jerusalem). In 2012, he says, there were 520,000. That’s 130,000 more (two-thirds of it, by the way, natural growth). Presumably, some significant proportion of the 130,000 have been added to settlements whose inclusion in Israel wouldn’t preclude a two-state solution, because of their proximity to pre-1967 Israel. So we are talking about some tens of thousands. Which 10,000 increment, between 2002 and 2013, put Israel past the “point of no return”?
Lustick doesn’t say. In the Times, he claims that American pressure could have stopped Menachem Begin’s re-election in 1981, precluding the building of “massive settlement complexes” and prompting an Oslo-like process a decade earlier, in the 1980s. It’s a we’ll-never-know counter-factual, but it doesn’t solve the conundrum. Lustick knew all this in 2002, and it didn’t dampen his faith in the historic inevitability of the two-state solution. So the question remains: what’s happened since 2002 to change Lustick’s mind so drastically?
“The state will not survive!”
Here we come to Lustick’s supposedly original contribution to the “one-state” argument. He isn’t repeating the usual claim that Israeli settlements have made a Palestinian state unachievable. He’s arguing that the Israeli state is unsustainable. “The disappearance of Israel as a Zionist project, through war, cultural exhaustion or demographic momentum, is at least as plausible” as an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. The best indicator? Israelis say so! “Many Israelis see the demise of the country as not just possible, but probable. The State of Israel has been established, not its permanence. The most common phrase in Israeli political discourse is some variation of ‘If X happens (or doesn’t), the state will not survive!’”
I don’t know any research that’s established “the most common phrase in Israeli political discourse,” and I’m guessing that Ian Lustick doesn’t either. He just made it up. In his February lecture, he did cite one work, from 2009, that counted how many articles published in the left-wing Haaretz employed the phrases “existential danger” or “existential threat.” There’s a bump up after 2002 (Second Intifada), then a spike up in 2006 (Second Lebanon War). The “study” proves absolutely nothing. After all, this is Haaretz, the Wailing Wall of the Israeli left. A perfectly plausible explanation is that the paper’s editorial bias, exacerbated by the eclipse of the left, has tended to favor doomsday prognostication.
And Lustick is contradicted by real research on real people, which he either ignores or of which he’s ignorant. The Israel Democracy Institute’s latest large-scale poll, for 2012, shows that optimists outnumber pessimists among Israeli Jews by a margin of 79 percent to 18 percent. Over 85 percent say Israel can defend itself militarily and only 33 percent think Israel will become more isolated than it now is. The Tel Aviv University academic who oversees the poll summarized the results: “It is important to note that most Israelis view the country’s future optimistically. Our national resilience rests heavily on the fact that even though people are negative on Friday evenings at their family dinner table and the zeitgeist is discouragement, when you scratch a little deeper, people are not really depressed here.” That may be an understatement. Israel is ranked eleventh in the world in the latest UN-commissioned World Happiness Index, which hardly correlates to any level of depression.
According to the Peace Index poll ahead of this Jewish New Year, only 16 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country’s security situation will worsen. 46 percent think it will stay the same, and 28 percent think it will actually improve—this, despite the chaos in Syria and the Sinai, and the spinning centrifuges in Iran. The only thing Israelis are persistently pessimistic about is the “peace process,” but that doesn’t sour the overall mood—except for the small minority, including those op-ed writers for Haaretz, who apparently constitute Lustick’s “sample.”
(Lustick also alludes to “demographic momentum” as working against Israel, and he has puttered around with figures in an attempt to show that Israelis are lining up to emigrate. He got away with this until an actual demographer, Sergio DellaPergola, took a hammer to one of his amateur efforts and left nothing intact. It’s a must-read takedown.)
Israel the balloon
But in the end, for Lustick, it doesn’t really matter how prosperous or stable or viable Israel appears to be, even to Israelis. That’s because Israel is like… wait for it… a balloon. “Just as a balloon filled gradually with air bursts when the limit of its tensile strength is passed, there are thresholds of radical, disruptive change in politics.” Zionist Israel is a bubble that’s bound to burst. It’s been inflated by American support, and the “peace process” has protected it from rupture. But the larger the balloon gets, the more devastating that rupture will be. In February, Lustick revealed that he is writing an entire book on this thesis, evoking “history” again, with a fresh analogy to exchange rates:
History will solve the problem in the sense of the way entropy solves problems. You don’t stay with this kind of constrained volatility forever. When you constrain exchange rates in a volatile market by not allowing rates to move even though the actual economy makes them absurd, rates will eventually change, but in a very radical, non-linear way. The more the constraint, the less the adaptation to changing conditions, the more jagged and painful that adaptation is going to be.
Better, thinks Lustick, that the “peace process” in pursuit of the two-state solution be shut down now, so that both sides can slug it out again—this time to “painful stalemates that lead each party to conclude that time is not on their side.” Israel, which has defeated the Palestinians time and again, has to stop winning. Pulling the plug on the “peace process,” he writes in the Times, would
set the stage for ruthless oppression, mass mobilization, riots, brutality, terror, Jewish and Arab emigration and rising tides of international condemnation of Israel. And faced with growing outrage, America will no longer be able to offer unconditional support for Israel. Once the illusion of a neat and palatable solution to the conflict disappears, Israeli leaders may then begin to see, as South Africa’s white leaders saw in the late 1980s, that their behavior is producing isolation, emigration and hopelessness.
And that’s where we want to be! Enough rolling of the diplomatic dice! It’s time to roll the iron dice! It may sound cynical to you, but Lustick thinks it’s destiny: “The question is not whether the future has conflict in store for Israel-Palestine. It does. Nor is the question whether conflict can be prevented. It cannot.” Remember, this is someone who just a few years ago insisted that a two-state solution was inevitable. Now he argues exactly the opposite. The world should get out of the way and let the inescapable violence unfold—only this time, the United States won’t be in Israel’s corner, and so Israel will be defeated and forced to dismantle itself.
The problem with rolling the iron dice, as even an armchair historian knows, is that the outcome is uncertain. What Lustick would like “history” to deliver is a defeat of Zionist Israel of such precise magnitude as to create a perfect equilibrium between Jew and Arab. But it may well be that the outcome he desires is the equivalent of rolling a 13, because Israel has deep-seated advantages that would be magnified greatly were Israel ever to find itself up against a wall. (The fortieth anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur war may be an apt moment to remember that.) Or something in his scenario could go wrong. As Clausewitz noted about war, “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance.”
One of the possible outcomes Lustick imagines is that “Israelis whose families came from Arab countries might find new reasons to think of themselves not as ‘Eastern,’ but as Arab.” Given that even “the Arabs” don’t think of themselves anymore as “Arabs” (especially when they gas or bomb one another), and that Jews never thought of themselves as “Arabs” even when they lived in Arabic-speaking countries and spoke Arabic, one wonders how many thousands of dice rolls it would take to produce that outcome.
Prophet of Philly
In the end, it’s pointless to debate Lustick on his own hypothetical grounds, invoking rolling dice, bursting balloons, and volatile exchange rates. That’s because nothing has happened since 2002 between Israel and the Palestinians, or in Israel, that can possibly explain his own total turnaround. I suspect his Times article has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everything to do with Lustick’s attempt to keep his footing in the shifting sands of American academe.
Ever since Edward Said veered toward the “one-state solution,” the pressure has been growing, and it’s grown even more since Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia, finally gravitated toward the same position (something I predicted he would do well before he actually did it). This turn of events left Lustick in the rear of the radical vanguard and far from the action. Ever since Tony Judt passed on, there’s been a vacancy for a professorial Jewish supporter of the “one-state solution.” So this is Lustick’s late-career move, and I anticipate it will do for him a bit of what it did for Judt, transforming him from an academic of modest reputation into an in-demand hero. Invitations will pour in. Soon we will hear of a controversy involving an invitation rescinded, which will raise his standing still higher. And it’s quite plausible that the Times piece will land him a heftier advance for his next book (as of February, “I’ve not written the conclusion yet”), and the promotional push of a major publisher.
In anticipation, Lustick is already casting himself as a prophet of Israel, exemplified in this quote from an answer he gave to a question last winter:
I argued in 1971 that 1,500 settlers in the West Bank were a catastrophe that would lead Israel into a political dungeon from which it might never escape. I was laughed at. I also argued for a Palestinian state alongside of Israel in the early 1970s, but it took twenty-five years before the mainstream in Israeli politics agreed with that. It may take another twenty-five years before they realize that what I’m saying is true now and will be even truer if Israel is still around in twenty or twenty-five more years.
This is not a human measure of prescience, as Lustick himself has acknowledged. How far in advance would anyone have been able to imagine the Iranian revolution or the fall of the Soviet Union? Lustick: “Ten years? No. Five years? Maybe two, if you were very, very good.” If, as Lustick claims, he consistently sees the future of Israel twenty-five years forward, he must inhabit a sphere far above the regular run of prognosticating political scientists. He is now compiling the Book of Ian. Read it, O Israel (enter credit card here), and weep.
The Wall Street Journal ran a symposium over the weekend about world reactions to Obama’s Syria turnaround. I wrote the contribution on Israel. Many aspects of the “turnaround,” especially the enhanced role of Russia in the Middle East, impact Israel. But I focused instead on Obama’s earlier “turnaround”: his decision to seek authorization for military action from Congress. Excerpt:
What Israelis found alarming was the way Mr. Obama shifted the burden of decision. Every one of Mr. Obama’s Syrian maneuvers was viewed as a dry run for his conduct in a likely future crisis over Iran’s nuclear drive. That’s where the stakes are highest for Israel, and that’s where Israelis sometimes question Obama’s resolve.
Israelis always imagined they would go to Mr. Obama with a crucial piece of highly sensitive intelligence on Iranian progress, and he would make good on his promise to block Iran with a swift presidential decision. So Mr. Obama’s punt to Congress over what John Kerry called an “unbelievably small” strike left Israelis rubbing their eyes. If this is now standard operating procedure in Washington, can Israel afford to wait if action against Iran becomes urgent?
Israel’s standing in Congress and U.S. public opinion is high, but the Syrian episode has shown how dead-set both are against U.S. military action in the Middle East. Israel won’t have videos of dying children to sway opinion, and it won’t be able to share its intelligence outside the Oval Office. Bottom line: The chance that Israel may need to act first against Iran has gone up.
Why was Obama’s recourse to Congress so alarming? Israel has long favored strong presidential prerogatives. That’s because the crises that have faced Israel rarely ever leave it the time to work the many halls of Congress. Israel discovered the dangers of presidential weakness in May 1967, when Israel went to President Lyndon Johnson to keep a commitment—a “red line” set by a previous administration—and Johnson balked. He insisted he would have to secure congressional support first. That show of presidential paralysis left Israel’s top diplomat shaken, and set the stage for Israel’s decision to launch a preemptive war.
2013 isn’t 1967. But Israel long ago concluded that the only thing as worrisome as a diffident America is a diffident American president—and that a president’s decision to resort to Congress, far from being a constitutional imperative, is a sign of trouble at the top.
“Not worth five cents”
What did Israel want from Lyndon Johnson in May 1967? On May 22, in the midst of rising tensions across the region, Egypt’s president Gamal Abdul Nasser announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israel-bound ships headed for the port of Eilat, effectively blockading it. More than a decade before that, in 1956, Israel had broken a similar Egyptian blockade by invading and occupying the Sinai. Israel withdrew in 1957, partly in return for an American assurance that the United States would be “prepared to exercise the right of free and innocent passage [through the Straits] and to join with others to secure general recognition of this right.” In 1967, when Nasser reimposed Egypt’s blockade, Israel asked the United States to make good on that 1957 commitment, by leading an international flotilla through the Straits to Eilat. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban flew to Washington and met with Johnson in the Yellow Oval Room on May 26 to make Israel’s case.
Johnson astonished Eban by pleading that he didn’t have sufficient authority to act. The U.S. memorandum of conversation summarized it this way:
President Johnson said he is of no value to Israel if he does not have the support of his Congress, the Cabinet and the people. Going ahead without this support would not be helpful to Israel…
We did not know what our Congress would do. We are fully aware of what three past Presidents have said but this is not worth five cents if the people and the Congress did not support the President…
If he were to take a precipitous decision tonight he could not be effective in helping Israel… The President knew his Congress after 30 years of experience. He said that he would try to get Congressional support; that is what he has been doing over the past days, having called a number of Congressmen. It is going reasonably well…
The President said again the Constitutional processes are basic to actions on matters involving war and peace. We are trying to bring Congress along. He said: “What I can do, I do.”
Abba Eban later gave a more devastating version of the “five-cent” quote: “What a president says and thinks is not worth five cents unless he has the people and Congress behind him. Without the Congress I’m just a six-feet-four Texan. With the Congress I’m president of the United States in the fullest sense.” According to the Israeli record of the meeting, Johnson also acknowledged that he hadn’t made his own progress on the Hill: “I can tell you at this moment I do not have one vote and one dollar for taking action before thrashing this matter out in the UN in a reasonable time.” And Johnson ultimately put the onus on Israel to get Congress on board: “Unless you people move your anatomies up on the Hill and start getting some votes, I will not be able to carry out” American commitments.
Johnson must have understood the impression he was leaving upon Eban. In the Israeli record, there are two remarkable quotes: “I’m not a feeble mouse or a coward and we’re going to try.” And: “How to take Congress with me, I’ve got my own views. I’m not an enemy or a coward. I’m going to plan and pursue vigorously every lead I can.” That Johnson twice had to insist that he wasn’t a coward suggested that he realized just how feckless he must have seemed.
I remember being almost stunned by the frequency with which [Johnson] used the rhetoric of impotence. This ostensibly strong leader had become a paralyzed president. The Vietnam trauma had stripped him of his executive powers….
I’ve often ask myself if there was ever a president who spoke in such defeatist terms about his own competence to act…. When it came to a possibility of military action—with a risk as trivial, in relation to U.S. power, as the dispatch of an intimidatory naval force to an international waterway—he had to throw up his hands in defeat…. On a purely logistical level, this would have been one of the least hazardous operations in American history—the inhibitions derived entirely from the domestic political context. The senators consulted by Johnson were hesitant and timorous. They thought that the possibility of Soviet intervention, however unlikely, could not be totally ignored.
The revulsion of Americans from the use of their own armed forces had virtually destroyed his presidential function. I was astonished that he was not too proud to avoid these self-deprecatory statements in the presence of so many of his senior associates. I thought that I could see [Defense] Secretary McNamara and [chairman of the Joint Chiefs] General Wheeler wilt with embarrassment every time that he said how little power of action he had.
The tactical objective, the cancellation of the Eilat blockade, was limited in scope and entirely feasible. It was everything that the Vietnam war was not. Lyndon Johnson’s perceptions were sharp enough to grasp all these implications. What he lacked was “only” the authority to put them to work. Less than three years after the greatest electoral triumph in American presidential history he was like Samson shorn of his previous strength…. With every passing day the obstacles became greater and the will for action diminished. He inhabited the White House, but the presidency was effectively out of his hands.
After the meeting, Johnson wrote a letter to Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol, reemphasizing the primacy of the Congress: “As you will understand and as I explained to Mr. Eban, it would be unwise as well as most unproductive for me to act without the full consultation and backing of Congress. We are now in the process of urgently consulting the leaders of our Congress and counseling with its membership.” This was actually an improvement on the draft that had been prepared for him, and which included this sentence: “As you will understand, I cannot act at all without full backing of Congress.” (Emphasis added.) That accurately reflected the essence of the message conveyed to Eban, but Johnson was not prepared to admit his total emasculation in writing.
There is a debate among historians as to whether Johnson did or didn’t signal a green light to Israel to act on its own. It finally did on June 5.
“Too big for business as usual”
In light of this history, it’s not hard to see why Israel would view any handoff by a president to the Congress in the midst of a direct challenge to a presidential commitment as a sign of weakness and an indication that Israel had better start planning to act on its own. It’s not that Israel lacks friends on the Hill. But in crises where time is short and intelligence is ambivalent—and such are the crises Israel takes to the White House—Israel needs presidents who are decisive.
In seeking congressional authorization for military action in Syria, President Obama did not negate his own authority: “I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization.” But “in the absence of any direct or imminent threat to our security,” and “because the issues are too big for business as usual,” he went to the Congress, so that “the country” and “our democracy” would be stronger, and U.S. action would be “more effective.”
Views differ differ as to whether the precedent just set will bind Obama (or his successors) in the future. But Israel understandably has no desire to become the test case, should it conclude that immediate action is needed to stop Iran from crossing Israel’s own “red lines.” Iran’s progress might not pose an imminent threat to U.S. security, and a U.S. use of force would definitely be “too big for business as usual.” So if those are now the criteria for taking decisions out of the Oval Office, Israel has reason to be concerned.
And they may well be the criteria. In 2007, then-Senator Obama was asked in an interview specifically about whether the president could bomb suspected nuclear sites in Iran without a congressional authorization. His answer:
Military action is most successful when it is authorized and supported by the Legislative branch. It is always preferable to have the informed consent of Congress prior to any military action.
As for the specific question about bombing suspected nuclear sites, I recently introduced S.J. Res. [Senate Joint Resolution] 23, which states in part that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”
That resolution went nowhere, but it establishes a strong presumption that Obama would insist on securing congressional authorization for the future use of force against Iran. Depending on the timing, that could put Israel in an impossible situation similar to that it faced in May 1967. Perhaps that’s why one of Israel’s most ardent supporters, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, has urged that Obama ask Congress now to authorize the use of force against Iran. Senator Lindsey Graham has proposed just that, without waiting for Obama: “I’m not asking the president to come to us; we’re putting it on the table, because if we don’t do this soon, this mess in Syria is going to lead to a conflict between Israel and Iran.”
Whether such an authorization-in-advance is feasible is an open question. In the meantime, there’s always the very real prospect that history could do something rare: repeat itself. In 1967, Israel faced a choice between an urgent need to act and waiting for a reluctant Congress to stiffen the spine of a weakened president. Israel acted, and the consequences reverberate to this day. Faced with a similar choice in the future, it is quite likely Israel would do the same.
This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on September 17.