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February 3, 2012 12:44 pm

President Obama’s U.S./Israel Policy: An Interview with Eugene Kontorovich

avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick

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U.S. President Barack Obama (left) with Israeli President Shimon Peres (right). Photo: wiki commons.

Amongst the pro-Israel community it is often asked whether the GOP or the Democratic Party is better for maintaining a strong US/Israel alliance. To many, this question has become obvious over the past 3-4 years. Even many Democratic supporters of Israel, such as Representatives Eliot Engel and Brad Sherman, have reluctantly admitted that President Obama’s rhetoric, at times, has been overly bellicose.

While there is general support for the thesis that President Obama and his Administration has been a publicly vocal critic of Israel, there is strong disagreement as to whether Obama’s policies have been deleterious to Israel. The case Democratic supporters tend to make is that while Obama’s words are sometimes inappropriately aggressive, in actuality the US/Israel relationship is essentially unchanged from the era of President Bush, who is almost unanimously believed to be an extremely strong supporter of Israel.

I recently attended a reception and dinner in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) in which Professor Eugene Kontorovich, Professor of International Law at Northwestern University and Member of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, gave a compelling lecture regarding President Obama and the US/Israel relationship. His central thesis is that while it is somewhat subtle (because it takes place in the diplomatic arena, where words are minced and friendships simulated) the US/Israel partnership is demonstrably worse than it was under the George W. Bush administration.  According to Professor Kontorovich’s analysis, he sees four basic problems with Obama’s management of the US/Israel alliance. The Professor and I recently had a conversation about his presentation as well as his overall thoughts on Middle East policy under President Obama. My summary follows:

Bush-Sharon Letters / 1967 Borders –

During George W. Bush’s second term he and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signed a series of letters, which served as an official declaration of US agreement relating to various Israeli policies, including housing decisions in the disputed territories. At the time of the letters, PM Sharon needed reassurance from the USA that extricating itself from the Gaza Strip would not set a precedent of associating the 1967 border with Israel’s bargaining position during subsequent negotiations. President Bush signed such a letter and the House of Representatives (407 yah -9 nay) as well as the Senate (95 yah – 3 nay) subsequently passed a resolution backing the Bush/Sharon strategy outlined in their letter(s).

Thus, the government of Israel was understandably taken aback when President Obama took office and promptly repudiated his predecessor’s guarantees, or rather, denied their official status. Later, he made an internationally famous speech calling upon Israel to withdraw to the 1967 borders, with minor land swaps. Indeed, the general idea of land swaps was discussed between then-PM Barak and President Clinton in the early 2000’s but was never formally agreed upon and was never approved by the Israeli Knesset. The clear assumption around land swaps is that Israel does not have an inherent claim to this land and the current Jewish inhabitants are intruders. While many in fact believe this, it certainly has never been US policy and illustrates a novel approach to Middle East peace making – putting a lien on all Israeli land.

Interestingly, in the past few days former Congressman Robert Wexler, a close friend and ally of President Obama, told an audience at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel that the Israeli government should refrain from new building in its pre-1967 land so that it can be used for potential future land swaps. Kontorovich quipped that this means Obama has put a lien on all of sovereign Israel; unlike any other nation, all its land is up for reassignment.

Even if one were to overlook these points, it is quite a concession to ask of a sovereign nation to carve out parts of their pre-1967 land and give that to another inchoate nation in order to allow the generations of Jews currently living in post-1967 land to remain in their homes and schools.

While the concept of land-for-peace is an acceptable concept to many, it is the most painful bargaining chip Israel has to play and should be reserved for the difficult decisions both sides must make toward the end of any negotiated peace. Instead, the Obama policy treats it like Israel’s required ante just to play in the game. In essence, Obama has succeeded in extracting more from Israel than any Palestinian negotiating team could have hoped. Not only has Obama demanded the ultimate concession from Israel from the onset, but he has also failed to demand, at least publicly, even the slightest concession from the Palestinians.

Settlements –

In 2009 current Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu agreed to freeze new building on any Israeli land deemed to be “settlements.” Whether one likes or dislikes Bibi Netanyahu, few dispute that he is one of the most right-leaning leaders that Israel has ever elected [surely Shamir was farther to the right]. Thus, why would such a man opt for a building freeze when he clearly believes it is well within Israel’s right to build? One can only assume there was tremendous pressure brought to bear against him by the United States, the only nation that has any real ability to alter Israeli behavior.

Professor Kontorovich makes the point that the 2010 kerfuffle surrounding Israeli building in East Jerusalem was a surprising display of anti-Israel sentiment by the Obama foreign policy team. During this event, Israelis were building additions to apartments, rebuilding porches and the like. The US, in surprisingly aggressive terms, publicly chastised PM Netanyahu, even though the building freeze had already ended. The message was clear: Jews were not allowed to build even the most modest project in East Jerusalem. Kontorovich has defined this process as “Constructive Disengagement” which is designed to convince Israelis living in “settlements”, including East Jerusalem, to move to pre-1967 Israel. After all, who would like to live in an apartment when the world is watching your every move to see if you build a playground outside your land for your children?

This is another example of President Obama demanding concessions from Israel. He is not, however, extracting similar concessions from the Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians, etc, but rather from the best ally Washington has in the region.

Basic US/Israel assumptions seen as gift –

Pro-Israel supporters of President Obama have pointed to the fact that following the conclusion of the mutually agreed upon building freeze in Israel, he offered to sell Israel a new fleet of fighter jets in about ten years and offered to veto anti-Israel resolutions in the UN for a period of one year in exchange for an extension of the building freeze.  Since the 1979 Camp David accords the US has sold advanced fighters to Israel and most have taken for granted a US President would veto anti-Israel resolutions. This promise to continue what had heretofore been decades-long US policy in exchange for further Israeli concessions, Kontorovich equates with mob protection.  This, he believes, is the Chicago way: pay up and I will protect you.

Palestinian Statehood at the United Nations –

Another issue folks use to defend President Obama is the handling of the Palestinian attempt to unilaterally declare statehood at the UN in 2011. This attempt, of course, failed. However, it failed not because of strong US opposition but from a lack of international support for a Palestinian state. In fact, the US did not veto this effort, which would have killed the unilateral process for good. Instead, President Obama successfully put the issue in abeyance for 14 months from last September. This conveniently puts the next Palestinian attempt immediately after the November 2012 election and is in affect a Sword of Damocles over the heads of all Israelis.

Conclusion –

Konotrovich finishes our conversation by making the point that in many ways President Obama has tried to give Israel “tough love” in a way that a father might give his child.  However, in reality it is more like tough without the love. He mentioned that Obama has argued it is not good for the Arab/Israeli peace process for the US to be too closely tied to

Israel but rather that the US should be tough on both sides. Kontorovich rhetorically asks about the toughness toward the Palestinian or Arab camp. For instance, Obama has promised to push Arab nations to open consulates in Israel if Bibi agreed in principle to a Two-State Solution, which Bibi did. Yet, there has been no movement toward new consulates in Israel.

US/Israel defense cooperation has continued to be strong, which is a primary point made by defenders of President Obama. Kontorovich feels if the President’s supporters best argument is that Obama did not cancel such cooperation, which would have been catastrophic for the relationship, then that is far from a ringing endorsement. Defense cooperation has a life of its own, driven primarily by the Department of Defense. It takes no courage for an American President to not cancel such efforts.

To this end, Kontorovich explains that improvements to Israel’s strategic national defense are not the controversial issue facing the Israeli-US relationship. Palestinians, peace advocacy groups and other Arab nations rarely make a fuss when Israel acquires a large, modern weapons program. They recognize the key to hurting Israel is in its ability, or lack thereof, to defend its heartland. This does not require squadrons of F-22s – although those are valuable to Israel’s overall defense plan; rather Israel needs unmitigated support for its counter-terrorism policies. Of course, the greatest counter-terror advancement for Israel would be a willing peace partner in the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinian President believes the US will continue to extract concessions from Israel why would he come to the bargaining table? Why not sit back and watch the US bargain on your behalf?

You can hear more from Professor Eugene Kontorovich by catching one of his upcoming lectures at:

  • Washington and Lee University School of Law, Feb. 8 at noon: Disputing Occupation: Israel’s Borders in International Law, sponsored by the Federalist Society
  • Cherry Hill, NJ on Feb. 12: One State, Two State, Three State, Four: The PA Bid for UN Recognition, sponsored by the RJC Southern New Jersey Chapter: http://www.rjchq.org/Events/eventdetail.aspx?id=975fe91f-1c86-43db-80ce-71297d20dc12
  • Princeton, NJ on Feb. 12: International Lawfare, BDS and the Delegitimization of Israel, sponsored by Advocates for Israel, to RSVP contact 609-924-3225 or naomivilko@msn.com
  • University of Florida Law School, Feb. 15th at noon, Disputing Occupation: Israel’s Borders in International Law, sponsored by the Federalist Society.

The author can be emailed at morganpmuchnick@gmail.com, or followed on twitter @morganmuchnick

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