U.S.-Israel crisis inevitable post-elections
First, the good news from America: This has been a great election for Israel and American Jews.
The voting is still a week away, and it is pretty much a dead heat. But whoever wins, Jews have reason to be happy.
In a campaign totally dominated by domestic and economic concerns, the only foreign policy issue that captured the attention of both parties from beginning to end was the importance of the American alliance with Israel and the threat posed by a nuclear Iran to Israel and the world. (The issue of Benghazi was mostly a distraction and an opportunity for Republicans to hammer Democrats about competence and transparency; it had little to do with principled foreign policy commitments.)
Incredibly, in the presidential foreign policy debate, Israel was mentioned more frequently than China. Keep in mind that the entire population of the Jewish state is far, far below the margin of error in the Chinese census.
There was nothing inevitable about this outpouring of support for Israel; neither was it inevitable that both candidates would make an absolutely clear, unequivocal promise that Iran will not be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. One could easily imagine a scenario in which these matters were pushed to the margins of the campaign.
That Israel fared so well is a tribute to the sophisticated political skills of the American Jewish community, which united early around the need to counter the Iranian threat. It is a tribute as well to the persistence of Prime Minister Netanyahu, whose most significant accomplishment is bringing the Iranian issue to the attention of America and the world. To be sure, Netanyahu’s intervention in the American election was clumsy and potentially disastrous, but he was wise enough to pull back before irreparable damage was done.
And now the bad news: The honeymoon between America and Israel will not last.
Following the Israeli election in January, expect substantial tension, if not a full-blown crisis, between Israel and the United States. And the focus of this tension will not be Iran, but the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the settlements. Furthermore, it will come no matter who is elected.
President Obama has expressed his concern about settlements. However, some conservatives in the “don’t touch the settlements” camp have pointed to the secretly taped Romney video from his May fundraiser in Boca Raton as evidence that the Governor can be trusted to do nothing to advance Israel-Palestinian peace; at that event, Romney said that the conflict should just be left alone. But private fundraisers for wealthy donors in Florida are one thing and political realities are quite another.
In his October 8 foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney outlined his approach to Israel and Palestine. “I will recommit America,” he said, “to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” He then proceeded to criticize Obama for not doing enough to promote negotiations between the two sides. In other words, he articulated policies identical to those of the Obama administration and consistent with those of every American administration for the last quarter century.
There are two reasons why I believe that a crisis will come next year, following Israel’s election.
First, a government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu remains the most likely outcome by far, and even before the pact with Lieberman, the Likud was moving steadily to the right. Settler and religious forces in Likud are much stronger now than they were a few years ago. With Avigdor Lieberman as Netanyahu’s number two, any coalition government led by Likud-Beitenu will move an already hardline settlement policy in a more extremist direction rather than a more moderate one.
Second, whoever is elected President next week will see that if something is not done about the settlement issue very soon, it will be too late. The new President will serve four years and so too might the new Prime Minister. The number of settlers outside the major settlement blocs has approximately tripled since the mid-1990s, to almost 100,000 people. At that rate of growth, four more years of settlement will make a two-state solution – the heart of American policy as articulated by both President Obama and Governor Romney – simply impossible. And the new President will know that.
As I have written before, Israel-Palestinian peace may not be possible now; under the best of circumstances, the Palestinians may not be ready for the tough concessions that will be required. But Israel can stop the creeping annexation of the territories that has long characterized its foreign policy. It can make clear what it hopes its borders to be. And it can, and must, keep alive the two-state solution that, in theory at least, the current Israeli government endorses and that is the foundation of American foreign policy. If it fails to do these things following Israel’s election in January, Israel—and American Jews as well—are in for a rough ride.