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Is Obama Using ‘Hard Power’ to ‘Get Israel to Toe the Line’?

Part I of a two-part interview with Moshe Arens — former Israeli defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the U.S.

by
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz

Bio

April 3, 2010 - 12:04 am

In a recent op-ed in the Hebrew daily Haaretz — for which he is a regular contributor — veteran politician and pundit Moshe (Misha) Arens recently took a stab at his former protégé, Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, for “groveling” before the American administration. The prime minister, he wrote, “might have been humming ‘I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.’”

He was referring to the Israeli government’s apologetic response to the latest brouhaha in Washington over the building of 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem, the announcement of which coincided with Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last month to the city.

It might strike some as strange that the 84-year-old aeronautical engineer and scholar — who served as a Knesset member, defense minister, foreign minister, and ambassador to the United States — would invoke a 1960s rock hit to express his dismay and disgust over an issue he holds so dear. But, then, Arens is altogether a walking paradox, particularly on the boisterous, chaotic Israeli scene, where he has been a prominent figure since his arrival in 1948.

Nor is his quiet, gentlemanly demeanor somewhat of an aberration in a country whose culture, until very recently, was characterized by a style of ill-mannered familiarity; but the fact that he is respected across the political spectrum — in spite of his unabashed hard-line leanings (not to mention early history as a leader of the revisionist Betar movement and subsequent member of the Zionist resistance organization, known as the Etzel) — makes him all the more mysterious. It is a tribute to his intellectual integrity that even his adversaries acknowledge admiring him.

Indeed, in spite of its controversial content, Aren’s latest book, Flags over the Ghetto, a scholarly examination of the heretofore-ignored and crucial role that Betar played in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, is taken seriously by champions and critics alike.

This is not to say that Arens — who was born in Lithuania and immigrated to the U..S as a young teenager — hasn’t had his fair share of strife, including within his own camp. In fact, his career has been punctuated by a series of struggles, among them a rift with Netanyahu.

Though “Misha” went to great lengths to help “Bibi” get appointed ambassador to the UN in 1983, welcomed his entering the Knesset for the first time in 1988, and backed his becoming prime minister for the first time in 1996 — he didn’t hesitate to turn against the “Likud prince” for signing the 1997 Hebron Protocol, and then the 1998 Wye River Memorandum, with PLO chief Yasser Arafat. The following year, Arens went as far as to challenge Netanyahu — unsuccessfully — for the party leadership. Netanyahu nevertheless “rewarded” Arens with the defense portfolio.

Since those days, Arens has been what could be called “cautiously supportive” of the man he once treated like a son.

In a Jerusalem Post interview I conducted with the elder statesman in June 2008 — eight months before the elections that would hail the comeback of Bibi’s premiership — Arens said: “You have to choose the candidate whose ideas are as close as possible to yours, and who has a chance of being elected. As far as I’m concerned, that’s certainly Netanyahu.”

A year into Netanyahu’s term, Arens discusses the challenges he continues to face: pressure from an unfriendly ally, a Palestinian entity with no cohesion or leadership, and a potential nuclearized Iran.

Q: Does Netanyahu’s apologetic response to the recent reprimands by Washington indicate that he is so concerned with obtaining President Obama’s cooperation in relation to the Iranian threat that he would do anything not to endanger the relationship?

A: I refuse to believe that there’s any kind of connection between disagreements Israel may have with the U.S. on the Palestinian issue and what the president of the United States decides to do about the Iranian threat. It just doesn’t make any sense. There is nothing more important facing the U.S. at the present time than Iran’s race for a nuclear bomb. It’s important to Israel, as well, of course, but it’s at the top of President Obama’s agenda. Now, to posit that he might decide to do, or not to do, something because of Netanyahu’s position on problems with the Palestinians is just ridiculous. And when people indicate otherwise — which many pundits do — it is in order to pressure the Israeli government into “behaving.”

Q: General David Petraeus recently blamed Israel for endangering American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Though he subsequently said his words were taken out of context, isn’t it possible that the Obama administration does see a connection between Israel’s actions and the behavior of the Muslim world — including Iran?

A: The administration may see a connection. But it’s a big leap from that to the president saying, “Let the Iranians have the bomb, because I don’t like what the Israeli government is doing about the Palestinian conflict.” It’s inconceivable.

Q: If so, what American interest is served by Washington’s picking a fight with Israel — a close ally — precisely when the Iranians are getting closer to having the bomb?

A: Well, you could make a case that it is in America’s interest to bring about reconciliation, an accommodation — or, if you like, a peace agreement — between Israel and the Palestinians. In fact, this has been considered a U.S. interest for many years by a number of administrations. But the approach of this administration is different; it’s much more forceful. In the past, whatever differences of opinion existed between the administration in Washington and the Israeli government — and we’ve always had differences of opinion; there’s no such thing as two nations, no matter how friendly, agreeing on everything — the U.S. preferred to keep them private, holding discrete discussions with Israeli representatives, not openly applying pressure on Israel to accept the U.S. view.

You know that this is called “soft power”? Well the Obama administration’s leverage is beginning to sound like “hard power” — brutal even — to get Israel to toe the line. I have no doubt that in President Obama’s eyes, this is the way to promote U.S. interests. As non-objective as I am, I have the impression that it is not only a mistaken policy, but one that isn’t advancing the peace process. In effect, it is making it almost impossible for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to come to the negotiating table, because he has to insist he has no choice but to wait until the conditions that the U.S. is setting are met by Israel before he does.

Q: How do you explain the pressure being applied exclusively to Netanyahu, when his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, made a more far-reaching offer to Abbas than any Israeli prime minister before him, and Abbas not only didn’t accept it, but never even responded? What does Obama expect Netanyahu to do?

A: He and his administration have stated unequivocally what they expect — or, maybe more correctly, what they want — of Israel: They want no building in Judea and Samaria — to which the Israeli government has acceded, at least partially, by imposing a freeze on building in the settlements — and no building in Jerusalem beyond the Green Line. To reiterate: Once these conditions are set publicly, they become conditions for Abbas; he will not negotiate until they are met. After all, he can’t be less Palestinian than Hillary Clinton or President Obama.

And my guess is that if the administration is being so forceful and indiscrete in setting conditions as a way of jump-starting negotiations, it will not hesitate to do so once the negotiations start, to pressure Israel into reaching an agreement with the Palestinians.

Q: Including pressuring Israel to accept the Palestinian demand for the “right of return”?

A:  This administration is so bent on getting things moving that it keeps insisting that the “status-quo is unsustainable.” This does not mean, “Do something,” but rather, “Do exactly as we say.”

So I assume that its response to any demands Palestinian negotiators have will be to pressure Israel into agreeing to them. The State Department has said openly that the core issues have to be addressed right away — no dilly dallying — and that the U.S. is not going to keep its views a secret. At this stage, it’s not too difficult to discern just what those views are.

Continued in Part II.

Ruthie Blum Leibowitz, former features editor of the Jerusalem Post, is completing a book on the "Arab Tsunami," to be released by RVP Publishers in early 2012.
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