Making Israel Blink

Dr. Murhaf Jouejati

According to a recent New York Times public opinion survey, 43 percent of Americans believe that Israel has done all it can to advance peace in the Middle East. Even more startling is that this figure is up 6 percent from the 1993 level. And yet, during the last two years, Israel did more to hurt the chances for peace in the Middle East than at any other time. Since coming to power in 1996, Israel's right-wing government resumed the construction of illegal settlements, failed to comply with the 1993 Declaration of Principles, reneged on commitments to Syria regarding the Golan Heights, and set conditions for what is supposed to be its unconditional withdrawal from Lebanon. By any standard, Israel's actions constitute a step backward, not forward, for the cause of peace.

One question that comes to mind is why American perceptions of Israel are so out of sync with reality? And, given this situation, how can we address the issues to the American public, issues such as Israel's withdrawal from the West Bank and the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and to set up an independent homeland with East Jerusalem as its capital?

The obvious answer is that most Americans are indoctrinated in the traditional Zionist tale of heroic return and nation-building in an empty desolate homeland. This indoctrination is the product of many years of disciplined work by AIPAC. According to the survey, the Holocaust and the view that Israel is vital to U.S. interests are at the root of American sympathy for Israel — arguments which AIPAC has skillfully advanced. Consider this. 64 percent of the respondents to the New York Times survey agree that "because of what happened to the Jews during World War II, Israelis are right to defend their homeland at any cost." 76 percent said they believe the United States has a vital interest in Israel, while only 15 percent said it does not.

Indeed, AIPAC's disinformation campaign has been so effective that only 38 percent of American non-Jews back the idea of the creation of a Palestinian homeland, as compared to 45 percent of American Jews.

To correct these misguided views is easier said than done. Arab-American organizations have sprung onto the political arena only recently. Moreover, they are dwarfed by the size of AIPAC. With over 55,000 members, AIPAC has a budget of $14.2 million and a full-time staff of 115. By contrast, the ADC has a budget of less than $1 million and a full-time staff of 14. The American Arab Institute, which also has a staff of 14, operates on a budget of $850,000. Therefore, despite their efforts, public support for the Palestinians has remained consistently low. Asked whether they sided more with Israel or the Palestinians, 58 percent chose Israel, up from 48 percent in 1997, while 13 percent in both years said they sided with the Palestinians.

Nonetheless, we should not be discouraged. For all their emphasis on the past, the evidence suggests that it is more recent times that Americans think of first. Asked what the word Israel brought to mind, 26 percent — the largest group — said war. Indeed, when the war topic arises, broad support for Israel diminishes. If Israel seemed in danger of being defeated by Arab armies, only 22 percent would favor sending troops; 24 percent would favor sending arms and equipment only, and 44 percent would want to stay out of the conflict.

This, I think, is the area where we have a comparative advantage. We need to point out to the American public that Israel's belligerent behavior, if unchecked, will lead to a crisis that may explode at any time and this will surely entail U.S. involvement.

The Land-for-Peace Equation

We need to explain to the American public that the Middle East Peace process, which the Bush administration launched in 1991, is based on the principle of land-for-peace and UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

But, despite Israel's stated acceptance of this framework, Israel proposed at Oslo a step-by-step approach, including a transitional, interim period. Withdrawal was to be gradual because Israel claims not to trust the Palestinians.

The Palestinians accepted these conditions. Only then did the process begin and was the Oslo agreement concluded. The Oslo agreement was built on the principle of the gradual withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank and Gaza leading to the full implementation of 242 and 338. The first phase included Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and Jericho. Then came the withdrawal from the populated areas.

Now is the phase of the so-called "further redeployment." Herein lies the crisis. Israel wants to move to the final status talks before it implements this phase. And even then, only from 9 percent of the land, as opposed to 40 percent which the Palestinians claim. And, although the Clinton Administration proposed an Israeli withdrawal of 13.1 percent, a position far closer to the Israeli position than to the Palestinian position, the Palestinians accepted the American proposal, the Israelis did not.

Moreover, Israel is laying more obstacles along the path. First, Israel refuses to withdraw on security grounds. But this seems to me to be a weak excuse. Even the late Rabin, whom Israelis dubbed Mr. Security, along with Israel's top generals, were willing to withdraw from the very territories that Netanyahu says Israel needs. Second, Israel refuses to withdraw because the Palestinian Authority has allegedly not done enough to safeguard Israel's security. And yet, in the same breath, Israeli leaders call on the Palestinian Authority to limit the number of Palestinian policemen. Third, Israeli officials insist that Jerusalem is Israel's eternal capital. And yet, international law and a large number of resolutions and conventions issued since the occupation of East Jerusalem all affirm its status as an integral part of the Arab territories occupied in 1967. In this light, there is no difference between East Jerusalem and Syria's Golan Heights or the south of Lebanon. And it is on this consensus that any future solution must be based, clearly acknowledging the Palestinian rights in Jerusalem and refusing Israel's claim to exclusive rule of governance.

In sum, Israel's latest demands suggest that Netanyahu's foot-dragging is based not so much on security considerations as much as on ideological and political considerations.

We must seize on this latest showdown between the U.S. and Israel and make it clear to the American public that by challenging America, Israel erodes American influence across the Middle East. Moreover, Israel's behavior invalidates Kissinger's Realpolitik claim according to which a strong Israel is more likely to make territorial concessions. In fact, the opposite is true. The stronger Israel has become, the less concessions it is willing to make. Indeed, the stronger Israel gets, the more arrogant it tends to become, and the more arrogant Israel gets, the more violence it engenders.

In conclusion, I would like to add that we need to emphasize the point that the only solution to the current impasse has to be imposed by the U.S., not negotiated between the two antagonists.

In this context, I don't buy the argument that President Clinton made in his recent speech to Arab Americans, according to which the U.S. cannot impose a solution. There are many precedents in which the U.S. pressured Israel. History shows that virtually every Israeli prime minister -- Labor and Likud -- had at least one showdown with the U.S. For David Ben Gurion, it was Dwight Eisenhower's order to quit Sinai in 1956; for Menachem Begin, the most well-known face-off was Ronald Reagan's 1982 demand to stop the shelling of Beirut; even the late Yitzhak Rabin, serving his first term in the mid-1970s, suffered a "reassessment" of U.S.-Israeli ties when Henry Kissinger, then negotiating a Sinai disengagement agreement with Egypt, insisted upon a deeper territorial withdrawal than Israel thought was necessary. As was the case in each of these episodes, history shows that Israel's leaders blink first.


The Cost of Israel to the American People by Mr. Richard Curtiss

Palestine, Jerusalem and the American Public by Mr. Rafa'at Dajani

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