Posts Tagged Israel

The rise of Israel in three acts

On Israel’s 71st anniversary, I offer a reflection on the incredible (some might say, miraculous) appearance of the leaders who steered the Zionist project through three crucial turning points. Most national movements have one paramount hero. Zionism has at least three: Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and David Ben-Gurion.

Why so many? Given the anomalous situation of the Jews, dispersed for two millennia, creating a Jewish state from scratch couldn’t have happened without preliminary and intermediate stages that most national movements don’t require. At any transitional stage, things could have gone wrong (and almost did). That they went right is due to the perfectly timed interventions of these three men. Were these leaders flawed? In some ways, yes. Were they a team? In most ways, no. Yet their flaws seem smaller at a distance, and their actions seem part of one inspired plan.

Israel doesn’t have the equivalent of a Presidents’ Day. All the more reason to take a few moments this day to ponder the role of individual will in the rise of Israel. Do just that at Mosaic Magazine, at this link.

Three Zionist Leaders

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If so, then why didn’t MLK condemn Israel?

Martin Luther KingYou’ll recall the piece by Michelle Alexander that ran in the New York Times this past Martin Luther King Day. Her money quote: “If we are to honor King’s message and not merely the man, we must condemn Israel’s actions.” It set me to thinking: why did MLK not condemn Israel’s actions in the twenty years between 1948 and 1968? It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities: Israel stood repeatedly in the dock during his lifetime. And why didn’t he say anything about the Palestinian “plight”? Especially as he got a high-level tutorial on the subject during a visit to East Jerusalem in 1959? I try to answer these questions in a new piece for Mosaic Magazine.

Read it here.

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Trump’s Mideast strategy: disaster or opportunity?

Over at Mosaic Magazine, Michael Doran published a long essay on the preferred American strategy in the Middle East, a piece that’s been popular among supporters of Donald Trump’s plan for a smaller U.S. footprint in the Middle East. Elliott Abrams offered the first response, and I’ve offered the second, below. (Original title: “Is the American Withdrawal from Syria a Disaster, or an Opportunity, or Something Else?”) Be sure to return to Mosaic Magazine for additional responses, and for Doran’s “last-word” rejoinder.

I have immense respect for the judgment of Michael Doran. So it’s significant that he thoroughly opposes Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Wait a moment, you say. Doran doesn’t write that in “The Strategy Washington Is Pursuing in the Middle East Is the Only Strategy Worth Pursuing.” If anything, in his latest essay for Mosaic, he acquiesces in Trump’s Syria decision, and indeed regards it as “inescapable.”

To which I’d answer yes—but, before Trump announced his decision, Doran was all against it. And since he was just as persuasive then as he is now, what’s a sworn Doran fan like me supposed to conclude?

Consider, for example, Doran’s earlier Mosaic essay on U.S. strategy (co-authored with Peter Rough), dated September 2017. There the authors argued that Syria should be turned into a theater of direct U.S. confrontation with Iran. They urged that Trump seek “an authorization [from Congress] for the use of military force in Syria against Iran and its proxies.” They also proposed that the president “consider building and maintaining a forward operating base” even deeper in Syria along the middle Euphrates River Valley. And they called for “increasing troop levels in that country” (my emphasis). These moves would show that the United States “is every bit as intent on making its influence felt in the region as are the Iranians and the Russians.”

Nine months ago, following an earlier Trump announcement that the United States would leave Syria “very soon,” Doran wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. There, once again, he insisted that this would play into the hands of Iran. The United States had to show Iran that “America is resolute in its determination to pare down the Iranian nuclear program. Retreating from Syria,” he asserted, “will foster the opposite impression.”

To this rationale, he then added a Turkish one: “The moment American troops leave Syria,” he predicted, the Kurds would “inevitably turn to Moscow,” and Vladimir Putin would use this leverage to pull Turkey away from the West. (Russia’s purpose, he later said, was “to turn Turkey into a Trojan horse inside NATO.”) Policy recommendation: Trump “should reconsider his intention to withdraw.”

In light of these writings, Doran’s current essay, hailing Trump’s strategy as “the only one worth pursuing,” is a bit baffling. In his previous Mosaic essay, not only had he favored an alternative strategy; he thought Israel should be a partner to it, calling on the United States and Israel to “develop a joint military plan designed to contain and degrade Iranian forces in Syria.” Reading that earlier essay, I thought that was bold of him, since I couldn’t remember the United States and Israel ever having had a “joint military plan” to accomplish anything.

Last July, to an audience at the Tikvah Fund where I was present, Doran complained that his proposal for a confrontational U.S. policy in Syria wasn’t making any headway:

Both the Israelis and the Americans now notionally have a policy of driving the Iranians out [of Syria], but I go back to the gap between ways and means, between aspirations and tools. I don’t see the two sides putting together the tools to do it. I think they could if they put their mind to it, and I keep writing things suggesting that they should, but unfortunately nobody is listening to what I say.

In fact, plenty of people were listening, and he wasn’t alone. But if by “nobody” he meant Trump, he was right. Today, says Trump, we are at a point where “now” is the “time to come home.” Although the conditions and time frame of this withdrawal seem to change from one day to the next, it’s certain that America won’t be adding troops, bases, or plans. It will only be subtracting them.

What does Doran think this means for Israel? “If the Israelis have any hope of preventing Syria from becoming a permanent Iranian military base, they must act alone.” But, he reassures us, fear not: in any confrontation to come, Trump will have Israel’s back. He’ll keep the region safe by supporting U.S. allies to the hilt against America’s adversaries. And if Israel gets into a big scrape along the way, “Trump and his foreign-policy advisers, led by [National Security Adviser John] Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will likely be eager to provide Israel with any weapons and intelligence it may lack to do the job.” Moreover, if Russia gets in Israel’s way, the United States will serve “as a deterrent to Russian military action.”

Indeed, there’s no doubt that in a pinch Trump would be more supportive of Israel than Barack Obama ever was. I’ll grant Doran that. Alas, however, there’s no guarantee that if and when the crisis comes, Trump will be in the White House, or Bolton and Pompeo won’t have become “distinguished fellows” in some Washington think tank. Someone other than Trump might be calling the shots in the Oval Office, and that someone won’t necessarily feel bound by Trump’s strategy, policy, or tweets (just as Trump hasn’t been bound by Obama’s). Indeed, the partisan packaging of this strategy, as presented by Pompeo in his recent speech in Cairo, may render it anathema to a successor administration.

So any assurances of what Trump is “likely” to do for Israel when push comes to shove are of no enduring value. The withdrawal from Syria is real and “now,” while any American “backing-to-the-hilt” is a vague promise with a current expiration date of January 20, 2021. This may be why a Who’s Who of Israel’s ill-wishers have had no problem welcoming Trump’s move. “Trump did the right thing,” wrote Harvard’s Stephen Walt. (He added: “In case any of you are wondering, I found it hard to type that sentence.”) Former CIA man Paul Pillar gave Trump a similar endorsement: “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day. And the decision about military withdrawal from Syria was the right one.” This has been echoed by the A-list of America’s most outspoken minimizers of the danger posed by Iran.

But let’s set aside the partisan posturing of Beltway pundits, and try to be objective. Is the Syria withdrawal a “disaster” for Israel? That was the word used by the Israeli columnist Caroline Glick in her own initial response. Trump, she tweeted, “is giving a huge victory to Iran, Russia, and Turkey and imperiling Israel, the Kurds, and Jordan.” (She later deleted the tweet.) Or is it an “opportunity”? A senior official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office was quoted as saying that his boss viewed it as just that.

In and of itself, it’s neither, and much depends on what follows it. In my view, Syria probably isn’t going to turn into an Iranian military base against Israel, or an Iranian-controlled “land bridge.” Iran is out on a limb in Syria, and Israel, for its part, hasn’t needed help to do what it’s been doing systematically and successfully for the past two years—that is, walloping Iran every time it raises its head. The contest is far from over, but Iran hasn’t found a way to counter Israel’s overwhelming superiority in the Syrian theater. So withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria doesn’t “imperil” Israel.

What about the risk to America’s reputation? Only 2,000 American troops presently dominate a third of Syria. Rarely have so few controlled so much at so little cost, a testament to the supremacy of the American military machine. In walking off the field in the fourth quarter, and leaving behind vulnerable allies (the Kurds) and vengeful enemies (the remnants of Islamic State), the United States gives up a huge lead. It’s quitting while ahead, but it’s still quitting. And even if you think Syria isn’t worth a candle, a reputation for staying-power is worth a great deal. Osama bin Laden used to recite a litany of U.S. retreats as incentives to attack it.

That said, the inconstancy of America’s role in the Middle East is really no secret, either to its allies or to its enemies. The United States isn’t part of the Middle East, and doesn’t border it. That’s probably why it’s never had a perfectly clear view of its interests there, producing manic-depressive bouts of intervention and withdrawal. In a 30-year cycle, the United States might dispatch a half-million troops to one Middle Eastern desert and agonize about keeping 2,000 in another.

And this volatility correlates with the rhythms of American domestic polarization, causing policy to swing like a weather vane in a gale. A U.S. president from the blue team comes to Cairo and proclaims that “fear and anger . . . led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals. We are taking concrete actions to change course.” Ten years later, a U.S. secretary of state, from the red team, comes to Cairo and declares in similar language, but to opposite effect, that “we’ve learned from our mistakes . . . [and] reversed our willful blindness.” All of these course changes and reversals are elements of pitched domestic battles. If you’re a savvy ally of the United States, you learn to ride out the cycles. But if you miss a cue, they can bring you down. (Think the shah of Iran and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.)

No one appreciates this more than Israel. It’s impossible to imagine a better ally of Israel than the United States, but one cannot be sure the United States will always do just the right thing at just the right time. Indeed, had Washington had its way, Israel might have missed its window for independence in 1948, its entry to the nuclear club in 1963, its chance for victory in 1967, and its blow to Iraq’s nuclear program in 1981. The list could be lengthened and brought up to the present.

The lesson is that there’s no substitute for Israel’s own ability to defend itself, and its independence to decide when and how to do so. Hence, as rival Washington “blobs” clash and leak over the U.S. posture in the Middle East, and the foreign-policy tribes shake their fists and point fingers, Israel is thinking hard about how best to fill the space left by a shrinking America. It is taking advantage of the consternation of America’s Arab allies in order to deepen regional ties. It is seeking understandings with Russia, over both Syria and Iran. And it’s working to identify every possible benefit of Trump’s own “back-our-friends” strategy, while he’s still in a position to make good.

This does not amount to kowtowing to all the wrong people, as some (liberal) critics of Israel would have it. It’s making the most of shifts in America’s posture, over which Israel has no say at all.

America may bounce back in the Middle East, or it may not. The weather vane may spin yet again. But even if it does, long experience also has taught the Jews not to presume the consistent and timely support of any other polity. That’s why there is a state of Israel, and why it can’t ever be too strong.

President Trump and Secretary of State Pompeo

Image: President Trump swearing in Secretary of State Pompeo, May 2, 2018, Department of State via Wikimedia.

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Israel’s founding fathers

The annual Jewish Leadership Conference (JLC) is a new initiative, with which I’m proud to be associated. The JLC, in its own words, “aims to develop a new political and cultural vision for American Jewry, and to bring together Jews who believe that conservative ideas can help strengthen the Jewish people, the Jewish nation, and the American civic future.” I had the privilege of addressing a session of the JLC’s second annual conference in New York, on October 26. My topic: Israel’s founding fathers. As I noted in the synopsis,

No one can fail to detect the dominant role of individual leaders in the rise of Israel. Theodor Herzl stirred the Jews of Europe to see a Jewish state as a feasible project. Chaim Weizmann persuaded the world’s greatest power to shelter the movement. And David Ben-Gurion inspired a mere 600,000 Jews to win a war of independence. Subtract any one of the three, and Zionism may have fallen short of its goal of a sovereign Jewish state.

Most great national revivals are driven by one transformative champion, or a group belonging to a single generation (such as America’s founding fathers). How is it possible that, over three generations, three visionary geniuses arose to lead the Jews to restored national independence?

Now that I’ve posed the question, view the address here and see how I answer it, in 29 minutes.

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Story so good, he told it twice

I originally thought that New York Times news columnist Max Fisher had taken his tall tale of Ben-Gurion’s July 1967 “prophecy” from Arthur Hertzberg. Actually, Fisher took it most directly from… Fisher. It turns out he used almost exactly the same lede in an article he wrote for Vox in 2015 (under the headline “Israel’s Dark Future”). Compare the two below: on the left, the Times lede, on the right, the Vox lede.

Fisher in NYT and Vox

I’ll make it still easier to compare:

  • Times: “Amid a moment of national euphoria, Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, emerged from retirement in July 1967 to warn Israelis they had sown the seeds of self-destruction.”
  • Vox: “Three weeks later, amid Israel’s national euphoria, the country’s founding prime minister emerged from retirement to warn Israelis that they had sown the seeds of national self-destruction.”
  • Times: “Israel had just won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Vox: “In June 1987, Israel won a stunning military victory against its neighbors, elating Israelis and the global Jewish community with a sense that the grand experiment of a Jewish state might really work.”
  • Times: “But Ben-Gurion insisted that Israel give up the territories it had conquered. If it did not, he said, occupation would distort the young state…”
  • Vox: “David Ben-Gurion, 81 years old, insisted that Israel, which had conquered the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank in the war, must immediately give them up. If they did not, he said, this act of forcible occupation would corrupt the Jewish state…”

The order of the sentences has changed a bit, but it’s the same phrases, and the lede serves the same purpose in both pieces: to claim that the founding father of Israel warned against the “occupation” and urged that all the territories be returned lest Israel be forever corrupted. In the Vox piece, there’s no mention of Hertzberg and no link to his 1987 article, although it’s obviously Fisher’s (only) evidence that Ben-Gurion said any of this.

It again shows just how irresistible this story is. Not only was it told earlier in the Times (by Anthony Lewis, back in 1987). Fisher’s now told it twice, before and since joining the Times. I leave aside the question of whether it’s permissible at the Times to run with a lede you’ve already published elsewhere (and to put it on the front page, no less). The Times strictly prohibits outside op-ed writers from recycling prose passages (see under: Slavoj Zizek, and scroll down). But maybe the Gray Lady is more forgiving of her own.

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I’ll take the opportunity of this small discovery to introduce one last nuance regarding Ben-Gurion and 1967. In my last post, I noted that Ben-Gurion “favored autonomy over annexation of the West Bank,” but I didn’t explain why. His reasoning suggests why some in Israel’s “peace camp” are so keen to claim him as a founding father, not just of Israel, but of their cause.

In his diary entry of June 8, as the war wound down, Ben-Gurion formulated his initial position on the West Bank:

On Jerusalem we must not budge. We have to quickly establish a large Jewish settlement there. The same with Hebron. The West Bank must not be returned to Hussein, but its annexation to Israel would mean the addition of one million Arabs, and this would present a terrible danger.

So here was the conundrum: the West Bank couldn’t be annexed, because of those million Arabs. In a letter dated July 17, Ben-Gurion elaborated on the problem:

As for the West Bank (excluding Jerusalem and its environs), it must be remembered that it is home to about a million Arabs, and nothing more imperils our future than adding them to Israel, because soon they would constitute a majority and take over the state. And I don’t imagine to myself that we would annex the West Bank, while denying to its habitants the rights of citizens, or expelling them from this territory.

But the West Bank couldn’t be returned either. Why? Even Ben-Gurion realized the flaw in the 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan: it had permitted an Arab army west of the Jordan river. That also imperiled Israel, and returning the territory would only leave Israel vulnerable again.

So Ben-Gurion developed the idea of the West Bank as an autonomous “province” or “protectorate” (he used both words), dependent economically on Israel, and surrounded on the east by Israeli forces along the Jordan river. In this autonomous entity, from which Jerusalem would be excluded, Palestinian Arabs would conduct their own affairs, but Israel would assume responsibility for defense and foreign relations.

In that same letter of July 17, Ben-Gurion explained his idea. As I showed, he’d done it already in his press release of June 19, but notice the last sentence:

Therefore, I propose autonomy for the West Bank, without sovereignty, but with economic ties to Israel, and in my opinion, we shall have to keep the Israel Defense Forces on the western side of the Jordan river. If Jews want to settle on the West Bank, they should be able to do so.

So the West Bank would be shorn of Jerusalem, separated from Jordan by Israeli forces on the river, dependent on Israel for its outlets to the sea—and open to Jewish settlement should any Jews want to settle there. It just wouldn’t be annexed: that would be a “terrible danger.”

Now if you agree with those two words, you might quote them and gloss over the crux of Ben-Gurion’s proposal. But there’s no doubt: Ben-Gurion, far from warning against “occupation,” was already trying to devise a reasonable alternative that wouldn’t require Israel to return or cede anything. And fifty years later, Ben-Gurion’s vision is very much a reality. “I am more and more persuaded,” wrote Hertzberg in 1987, “that the old man I heard that night twenty years ago was more prophet than angry octogenarian.” If so (and I think not), it wasn’t because he warned against the “occupation,” but because he prepared the rationale for a derivative of it, which has evolved into today’s status quo on the West Bank.

Which is not to say that Ben-Gurion’s proposal in 1967 is a guide for the future. Quoting statesmen of the past is no substitute for independently thinking through problems. The political discourse in Israel is awash in arguments that if only Jabotinsky or Ben-Gurion or Yitzhak Rabin were alive, he would say this or do that. To clinch these arguments, polemicists twist history out of all recognition. But it’s a deception, because the dead don’t know what we know. The question is what we should do, based on the experience and wisdom we’ve acquired since all of these “greats” turned to dust. If the best that critics of Israel’s policies can do is copy and paste (mis)quotes from buried Israeli statesmen, then the road before them is long indeed.

Pointer: Listen to my remarks on Israel’s nation-state law, made in a conference call panel sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, here.

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