Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Ambition Makes You Look Pretty Ugly

Last week, Brian Ulrich discussed reports of the interest on the part of the Syrian government to increase dialogue with Israel in pursuit of negotiated settlement on a broad swathe of issues currently in contention. The problem is, the Bush administration exerted pressure on Israel to rebuff Syria's entreaty. This led Brian to raise an interesting question:

...American policy makes no sense, though since Dick Cheney was apparently in the loop of our involvement, that's to be expected. The war drums focus is clearly on Iran. I doubt the Bush administration could plan a major confrontation with Syria during its two remaining years in office. What, therefore, is the point of stymieing negotiations? [emphasis added]
In the comments to that post, Jim Henley offered a short answer that accurately describes the purpose of the Bush administration's scuttling of any potential Syrian/Israeli detente: "Preventing peace." Subsequently, however, I think Henley goes to far in ascribing the motive behind such action - mostly centered around the desire to humiliate and deny dignity to Syria.

Matt Yglesias was skirting around similar issues with a post that discussed, among other themes, the fact that what is often labeled as the staunchest "pro-Israel" position is actually just the most hawkish - and one that is not necessarily supported by a majority of the Jewish community in either America or Israel. In fact, this ostensibly zealous "pro-Israel" position actually augments the hostility toward Israel, and increases the likelihood of an Israel perpetually under siege. Yglesias takes a jaundiced view of the motivations of the war-mongers:

In short, American unwillingness to negotiate is seriously compromising Israeli security....My suspicion continues to be that "pro-Israel" outfits and their funders on some level want the Middle East to be perpetually unstable and Israel to be perpetually at risk. Hawkish American Jews, after all, pay few if any of the costs of such a dynamic. In the meantime, it gives some meaning to their hobbyist's enthusiasm for advocacy on behalf of Israel.
There's actually a simpler explanation than those offered by Matt and Jim, and it's based on that familiar, if pernicious, tandem that has proven the bane of many a human society: greed and hubris. Put simply, certain hawkish factions in Israel and the United States would like to prevent successful negotiated settlements with both Syria and Iran because negotiations require concessions. Such bargaining is time consuming, it may or may not bring about a comprehensive resolution and, perhaps most importantly, it would require Israel to cede valuable real estate, water rights and other coveted assets. Robert Bruce St John offers a taste of what Israel may be required to barter away at the negotiation table:

In the case of Lebanon, components of this process would include Israel's return of the Shebaa Farms, a prisoner exchange, final demarcation of the Blue Line, and security guarantees on Israel's northern border. For Syria, progress begins with ending its current diplomatic isolation, replacing it with dialogue in the form of a step-by-step process of negotiation similar to that successfully employed with Libya. Key elements of an Israeli-Syrian settlement would include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a comprehensive peace treaty, normalization, and security guarantees to Israel. With Iran, a peaceful resolution of the issues related to its nuclear program, a process which must at some point include direct American-Iranian talks, needs to be tied to a host of related issues, including Iranian security concerns, Iran's present and future role in Iraq, the Iranian-Syrian relationship, and Iran's support for Hezbollah.

In the case of the Palestinians, the way forward has been clear since the collapse of Clinton's efforts in 2000. Elements of a comprehensive settlement with Israel would include, but not be limited to, the following: A Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, subject to such minor modifications agreed to by Israel and Palestine; Palestinians must relinquish the right of return, with Israel reciprocating with the removal of West Bank settlements, again with minor rectifications as agreed to by both parties; displaced citizens on both sides of the final border would be compensated by the international community; a robust international force would be deployed in southern Lebanon, a process already under way; a separate international force to supervise and facilitate Palestinian movement between Gaza and the West Bank would also be deployed; and finally, Jerusalem would be designated the shared capital of Palestine and Israel, with needed guarantees concerning freedom of movement and civic life in the city.
In the flawed assessment of some, the give-and-take set forth above represents a price too high. For those drunk on maximalist desires and a wild overestimation of the potency of the "unipolar" moment, military solutions have taken on a magical luster. Why give your adversary a piece of the action, when you can keep it all yourself? - or so the thinking goes. As I wrote back in October 2006 of Israel's recent entanglement with Lebanon:

I think that to a large extent, the Likud and other hawkish factions in Israel have taken their nation's military superiority as a given. This has led to, in my opinion, some lazy thinking, short-sighted policies and general over-reaching. The incentives have been skewed. Similar to the Bush administration's own approach to conflict resolution (or lack thereof!), some influential leaders in Israel have seemed to prefer sabotaging efforts to bring peaceful settlement (see, ie, manner of Gaza withdrawal), in an effort to make the most bellicose courses of action inevitable. The underlying assumption behind these parallel strategic maneuvers being the belief that, when the military conflict is made irresistible, Israel (or America in the case of the Bush administration) could simply assert its will, militarily, on its stubborn adversaries. No compromise necessary. No giveaways at the negotiation table. Clean, tidy and satisfying in the extreme.
But don't take my word for it. Those pushing this uncompromising, winner-take-all line have spelled it out in no uncertain terms. Again, from St John:

In 1996, a group of American neoconservatives participated in a study group organized by the Israel-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. The group produced a paper entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” which advocated an ambitious set of policies aimed at ensuring Israel's security. Although originally directed at Israel's then-incoming Likud government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, the ideas discussed in the paper parallel to a remarkable degree U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, which has resulted in disastrous consequences for American interests in and out of the region. [...]

Among the paper's more salient points was the argument that “Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq—an important objective in its own right—as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions.” The authors also encouraged Israel to seize the initiative on its northern borders, “engaging Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon.” If striking military targets in Lebanon proved insufficient, Israel should feel free to strike at “select targets in Syria proper.” To justify the new policy, Israel was counseled to remind the world that “Syria repeatedly breaks its word” (emphasis in the original). Finally, the paper considered it “both natural and moral” for Israel to abandon the idea of a “comprehensive peace,” move to contain Syria, draw attention to Syria's weapons programs, and reject “land for peace” deals on the Golan Heights.

The paper also called for a fundamental change in the nature of the Israeli relationship with the Palestinians. The new relationship would be grounded on the understanding that “[Israel's] claim to the land—to which we have clung for hope for 2,000 years—is legitimate and noble.” The document declared that “Israel's efforts to secure its streets might require hot pursuit into Palestinian-controlled areas, a justifiable practice with which Americans can sympathize,” though it avoided the related issue of targeted assassinations.
Taken in this light, the stubborn refusal to pursue (and affirmative acts to prevent!) negotiations between the US and Israeli governments and either Iran or Syria is consistent with the position that confrontation, isolation and war could deliver more for Israel in the long run. This view is spectacularly wrong - and the recent humbling experiences in Iraq and Lebanon this summer should provide all the evidence needed - but it is also wrong to assume that those urging this course of action are motivated primarily, or even to a large extent, by a desire to humiliate or a need to feed one's hobby.

The actual objectives are both more and less insidious than either of those motivations. What's most disturbing though, is that by all appearances the Bush administration remains wedded to this position and, at least in the case of Iran, is inching closer and closer to war. As for Syria, perhaps putting that conflict on hold would suffice - but we can't allow negotiations to spring up in the meantime now can we? That would be too costly. Heh.

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