Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
FP: Kenneth Levin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about the Obama administration waging war on Israel. Tell us the ingredients of this war and why it is being waged.
Levin: Let’s first consider the elements of policy that are evidence of Obama’s anti-Israel animus. Virtually his first step in Arab-Israeli diplomacy was to demand a total freeze of all Jewish construction beyond the pre-1967 cease-fire lines. This is something which no previous American administration has ever demanded. In addition, it has never been a pre-condition to previous Israeli-Palestinian talks, nor has it ever been undertaken or agreed upon by any previous Israeli government. At the same time, the Obama administration made no comparable demands of the Palestinians or their Arab supporters.
Somewhat as an afterthought, and with much less fanfare, the Administration did suggest the Palestinians ought to refrain from anti-Israel incitement and that Arab states ought to make some gestures of openness towards Israel. The former request was ignored and the latter was explicitly rejected, but the Administration remained focused on pressuring Israel.
Noteworthy in this regard was Jackson Diehl’s article in the Washington Post on an interview with PA prime minister Mahmoud Abbas in Washington at the time of Abbas’s first meeting with President Obama after the president’s inauguration. Abbas conveyed to Diehl that he did not feel the need to make any gestures towards Israel to advance the search for “peace”; that, for example, the Palestinian Authority’s anti-Israel incitement and rejection of compromise on key issues were not problems he had to address. Rather, he could wait until sufficient Israeli concessions were delivered to him. The impression was clearly that this stance derived from what Abbas learned of the Administration’s attitudes: The pressure was going to be focused on Israel and nothing of significance was expected of the Palestinians. Indeed, this was Diehl’s explicit conclusion: “[President Obama] has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud.”
When, in his Bar Ilan University speech last June, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed a preparedness to recognize a demilitarized Palestinian state, there was some acknowledgment within the Administration that this was a positive step, but it hardly led to any turning to the other side for any reciprocal move. For example, the original UN resolution of 1947 calling for creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state within the area west of the Jordan then administered by Britain was accepted by the Jews, rejected by the Arabs. Benjamin Netanyahu, representing the major party most skeptical of Palestinian willingness to live in peace alongside a Jewish state, was now expressing his preparedness to accede to Palestinian sovereignty in a neighbor nation carved out of the West Bank and Gaza. Yet no Palestinian leader has ever expressed a comparable willingness to tolerate a Jewish state, and Mahmoud Abbas has explicitly refused to do so. But this has failed to elicit from the Administration any criticism or insistence that Abbas and the Palestinians change their stance and mirror Netanyahu’s gesture.
On the contrary, Obama has chosen to continue pressuring only Israel.
That the Administration sees its role as accommodating Arab demands and dismissing Israeli interests was further demonstrated when Prime Minister Netanyahu acceded to a ten-month freeze in Israeli construction in the West Bank – something to which no previous prime minister of any Israeli political party had ever agreed. Initially the move was praised as a major, courageous step by Israel – as in Secretary of State Clinton’s immediate response to announcement of the Israeli concession. But within days, as the PA and Arab states made clear they were not satisfied with the Israeli move, the Administration, including Hillary Clinton, changed its tune and insisted that, of course, it too was not satisfied with the Israeli concession but wanted the freeze extended to Jerusalem as well.
The most recent illustration of anti-Israel animus on Obama’s part should hardly then have come as a surprise to anyone. This was, of course, the Administration’s cynical, histrionic, defamatory response to the announcement – during a visit to Israel by Vice President Biden – of one of a long series of bureaucratic steps involving the approval of construction of additional housing units in a long-established Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem beyond the pre-1967 cease-fire lines. Prime Minister Netanyahu did not know of the move beforehand – a fact no one in the Administration has challenged – and he immediately apologized to the vice president over its timing. Biden left Israel having seemingly accepted the apology, but the president decided to clamp onto it as the pretext for a vitriolic anti-Israel campaign, using Secretary Clinton and even his advisor David Axelrod to accuse the Jewish state of somehow insulting and demeaning America by its daring to build homes for Jews in territory the Palestinians want as their own.
FP: And all this time, the Obama Administration is simply doing nothing about Palestinian provocations?
Levin: Indeed, the Administration has ignored, and continues to ignore, PA provocations. As has been noted by some in the media, during the Biden visit, the Palestinians dedicated a square in a Palestinian municipality to a terrorist who participated in one of the worst terror massacres Israel has suffered, the murder of 37 civilians, about half of them children. In her AIPAC speech, Secretary Clinton spoke of the dedication having taken place in a town run by Hamas, was silent on Abbas and the PA’s involvement in the affair, and had only words of commendation for Abbas. In fact, Abbas has repeatedly praised the terrorist, Dalai Mughrabi, defended the naming of the square in her honor, ordered and arranged PA participation in the ceremony, and he and his PA colleagues, not Hamas, were the major driving force behind the dedication. Yet the Secretary of State intentionally omitted this background and exonerated Abbas and the PA as she sought to render Israeli construction of Jewish housing the major obstacle to progress towards peace.
FP: Obama is actually violating key principles and previously recognized international understandings and agreements, right?
Beyond the obvious absurdity of the Administration’s anti-Israel invective, and the transparent animosity that underlay it, lie Administration betrayals of international understandings regarding the territories, international law, and prior American commitments.
First, the cornerstone of negotiation over the territories remains UN Security Council Resolution 242, passed in the wake of the 1967 war. The authors of 242 explicitly stated that it did not call for Israel to return to the pre-war lines and that they believed Israel should not do so as those lines were no more than armistice lines and, in addition, a return to the status quo ante would only invite future aggression against Israel.
In the context of 242, the areas beyond those lines are disputed territory. Moreover, under international law, by virtue of UN charter references to the status of the area and to the continued standing of League of Nations directives pertaining to the area, by virtue of there having been no internationally recognized sovereign power in the territories after Arab rejection of the 1947 partition plan, and by virtue of the territories having been lost to Israel as a result of aggression undertaken against her, Israel has legitimate claims in the territories and her presence there has international standing.
Furthermore, this standing, and the legitimacy of Israel’s claims to defensible borders
which will entail retaining parts of the territories in any settlement, have been recognized by various American presidents. Israel created most of its settlements – certainly those where the vast majority of “settlers” live – to reinforce its claims to strategically sensitive areas, such as those crucial to the defense of Jerusalem, heights that dominate the coastal plain that is home to most of Israel’s population, and the Jordan Valley and the heights above it, which control approaches to Israel’s interior.
Consistent with all of this, there have been earlier presidents who have suggested that at least some settlements might complicate the search for an Arab-Israeli agreement, but none other than Jimmy Carter claimed the settlements were illegal. Obama has come closest to emulating Carter, calling them “illegitimate.”
The Administration has argued as well that Israeli construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank is also intolerable because it is prejudicial to ultimate arrangements. This is certainly Israel’s intent – again, it has used settlements to lay claim to strategically sensitive areas. But the Palestinians have done the same. Aided by large infusions of money from Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and also by European funds, they have built extensively, for example, in previously empty areas in and around Jerusalem. They have done so because they are no less aware of what is strategically sensitive territory than is Israel, and while Israel wants to defend areas within its pre-1967 lines, the Palestinian leadership and their Arab allies want to establish positions that will again render those areas strategically vulnerable.
The Administration’s characterization of Israeli building as prejudicial to a final settlement and its vituperative demands for an end to all such construction, coupled with its silence and implicit support of large-scale Arab building and establishment of “facts on the ground” in disputed territories, is itself an expression of anti-Israel bias.
FP: So what’s going on here? Why is the Obama Administration bullying Israel?
Levin: As to what is motivating the Obama Administration’s war against Israel, a number of possibilities have been suggested. Some have pointed out the president’s long association with people who harbor, and peddle, deep enmity towards Israel, including Bill Ayres, Reverend Wright, Rashid Khalidi, Samantha Power and others. It is suggested that he shares much of these associates’ world view, including their attitude towards the Jewish state.
It is, of course, difficult to weigh how much this history figures in his policies as president vis-à-vis Israel. More clearly open to assessment are broad elements of his approach to foreign policy since his inauguration and how they relate to Israel. He declared as a candidate, and has pursued as president, a policy of seeking to ingratiate himself with hostile states and hostile populations. This has led, for example, to repeated apologies for supposed American “misbehavior” in the past and to other self-effacing blandishments towards such parties. Inevitably, this seeking to make nice to those hostile to America will all too often entail backing away from friends who are likewise viewed with hostility by those the Administration is trying to appease.
FP: And Obama is trying to mend fences with the Muslim world, right?
Levin: Well, this is how it is seen, but it is not quite true; Obama is seeking to mend fences primarily with America’s enemies in the Muslim world, and – to the degree that picking fights with Israel derives from this agenda – Israel is not the only victim. We’ve seen the Administration’s slowness to voice any support for those engaged in the popular uprising in Iran. The Iranian people are perhaps the most pro-American population of any Muslim country; but Obama has been seeking to engage the regime, and so he initially gave Muslim friends struggling for their freedom the back of his hand in order not to offend Iran’s theocrats. To some degree, he continues to do so.
Similarly, the genocide being perpetrated by the Sudanese government against the Muslims of Darfur continues virtually unabated. But Sudan, whose president won the support of the entire Arab League following his indictment for genocide by the International Criminal Court, is another enemy the Administration is seeking to placate, and so the Muslims of Darfur – despite Obama’s campaign promises to make their plight a priority for his presidency – are given short shrift.
The same pattern can be seen in the Administration’s actions vis-a-vis Honduras when its former president sought to subvert the nation’s democratic constitution in order to stay in power, in the manner of his friend Hugo Chaves’s subversion of Venezuela’s democracy. Honduras’s independent judiciary backed the constitution, refused to acquiesce in its violation and ordered that President Zelaya’s attempts at what was, in effect, a coup, be stopped. The Obama administration’s response was to back Zelaya and impose sanctions on this fellow democracy – apparently to win favor with Chavez and his circle of like-minded anti-American leaders in Central and South America who, of course, also sided with Zelaya and against Honduras’s democratic institutions.
Beyond perhaps a longstanding anti-Israel animus, and the role of this seeking to ingratiate himself with those hostile to America, as explanations for Obama’s “war” against Israel, there also undoubtedly looms large his embrace of claims – long popular among those hostile to Israel in Washington – that American closeness to Israel and failure to force upon Israel concessions that would satisfy the Palestinians and the Arab world more broadly, make it difficult for America’s Arab allies to cooperate with the United States vis-à-vis Iran, or Iraq or in other arenas where such cooperation would be useful.
FP: How legitimate are these claims?
Levin: There are many obvious flaws with these anti-Israel arguments. First, as was seen at the 2000 Camp David summit, and again in the negotiations between Prime Minister Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, no amount of Israeli concessions that allows for Israel’s continued existence will satisfy Palestinian leaders or most of the Arab world.
In addition, Arab nations are less solicitous of the Palestinians than hostile to the Israelis, and one would be hard-pressed to find any instance in which Arab leaders have, for the sake of the Palestinians, foregone pursuit of policies they have seen as in their own national interests. If, for example, particular Arab states feel sufficiently threatened by Iran and compelled to take action against Iran, they will do so no matter what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians. And if they feel too intimidated by Iran to take any action against her, or – as seems likely at the present time – are too untrusting of the American commitment to contain Iran and prevent its acquiring nuclear weapons; too untrusting, in effect, of American backing, to dare take strong steps of their own against Iran; they will refrain from such steps no matter what concessions Israel makes to the Palestinians.
No doubt, when pressed by the United States to take positions they find unpalatable, America’s Arab “allies” will at times assert that American support for Israel has rendered America so unpopular among their people as to present an unbridgeable obstacle to the desired cooperation. But to the degree that Israel is venomously, murderously hated in the Arab world, that hatred derives primarily from the campaign of anti-Israel, and anti-Jewish, defamation and demonization which is spewed by government controlled media, mosques and schools in virtually every Arab state. For Arab leaders to then assert that they must be excused from helping America because their people so resent the American alliance with Israel is rather like someone killing his parents and then pleading for the mercy of the court because he’s an orphan.
An additional explanation that has been offered by some for Obama’s recent attacks on Israel is that he has no intention of stopping Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and is positioning himself to blame Israel for his failure. Certainly, Obama gives little indication of feeling any urgency to exert substantive pressure on Iran. He promised punishing sanctions if Iran did not agree to international proposals regarding its weapons program by September, 2009, and six months later no such sanctions are on the horizon. He has fought the recent Congressional push for effective sanctions. And he has hardly indicated any willingness to resort to military means to stop Iran. The argument by those who see his attitude toward Iran as key to his recent attacks on Israel is that Obama will claim that Israel’s failure to take sufficient steps to accommodate Palestinian demands and those of the international community, particularly regarding settlements, undermined the Administration’s ability to build the coalition necessary for the imposition of effective sanctions on Iran.
Of course, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would not only present an existential threat to Israel but would unleash a nuclear arms race among other Middle East nations, could result in nuclear weapons being given to Iran-sponsored terrorist groups, and would endanger America and its international interests in myriad ways. With regard to Iran, as with regard to so many other issues in the Middle East and beyond, Israel and America’s interests coincide, and that is why the alliance between the two nations has been so strong for so many decades.
But this last point may actually touch on the key to much of Obama’s apparent hostility towards Israel. Among much of the European Left, for whom belief in America’s negative role in the world is clung to virtually as a religious conviction, Israel’s greatest crime has been its close alliance with the United States. Obama is likewise convinced that America’s behavior in international affairs has been largely negative – a conviction that underlies, of course, his repeated apologies to international audiences for his nation’s past actions – and as he seeks to reshape America his model is primarily that offered by the European Left. For Obama, as for many of those Europeans, Israel’s greatest sin may be that – both through the Cold War and in the ongoing confrontation with Islamic fascism – it has been such a close, valuable and trustworthy ally of the United States.
FP: Kenneth Levin, thank you for joining us.