As a rule, I prefer to avoid language that can be read as hyperbole. But if this story in the Jerusalem Post is accurate (h/t: The Muqata), the Obama administration has committed negotiation “diplomacy” of the most cynical and transparently calculating kind. It’s not just evidence of a breach of faith with an ally, moreover: it’s a stupid negotiating tactic. It suggests that a US national position, one that should be unchanging, is for sale.
In brief, JPost says the Israelis were told this weekend that if they would agree to a 90-day freeze in settlement construction, the US would commit to giving them 20 new fighter jets and supporting their national integrity, with vetoes if necessary, in the UN – for the next year.
The import of the latter “promise” – unfortunately, scare quotes are appropriate here – is growing, with the threat that the UN will consider peremptory, non-negotiated declaration of a Palestinian state. As John Bolton wrote in October, this threat is a real one, and the Obama administration could very well respond by abstaining from any Security Council vote on the matter. To coin a phrase: You know in your heart he’s right. Barack “Vote Present” Obama is exactly the president to make that happen.
The ugly, cynical faithlessness of this move can hardly be overstated. Whether Israel, as a sovereign nation, has the irreducible right to negotiate her own borders is the kind of bedrock principle on which the US position should be firm and unmovable. The moment it is not – the moment it is put up for sale or made into a bargaining chip – we abandon our position in world leadership and become just another calculating nation, jockeying for factional advantage and partisan prizes.
Nations that operate in this fashion usually end up putting the squeeze on their own allies. That’s what Obama is doing here, if the JPost report is correct. He is using the prospect of a conditional US guarantee to gain a concession from Israel – with the implied threat that if the concession is not made, there will be no guarantee. What kind of ally does that make us? An undesirable, unreliable, and counterproductive one, for starters.
I have written here about the significance of the settlements in Judea and Samaria – the West Bank – to Israel’s security. The factors in that assessment haven’t changed. Israel is not being stupidly recalcitrant about the settlements. What she cannot do is allow the negotiating process itself to wring concession after concession from her, as a condition of merely talking with the Palestinian Arabs, and with no concrete commitments from the Arabs in return. In short order, this dynamic would become an effective veto over Israel’s national security: an attritional diplomatic campaign against Israel’s ability to defend territory. Israel can’t rationally agree to the implications of this approach.
Whether the Obama administration is coming at this with full recognition of that truth or not, its move here is high-handed and cynical. It is also shortsighted to an absurd degree. Apparently, Obama really does see Israel as a special case, one to which the norms of international conduct and understandings don’t apply. But other nations – namely, our allies in the G-20 and NATO – will immediately recognize that what applies to Israel could apply to them, and everyone’s borders and national security arrangements could be up for grabs. Russia, China, India, Japan; Arab nations with which we have agreements and partnerships in the Middle East; even our NATO allies Spain, Greece, and Turkey – all have border disputes and/or disaffected ethnic groups and insurgencies seeking new borders and even separate nationhood.
As much as they complain and yammer at us, these nations have all relied on the US, over the years, to uphold the principle of respect for recognized nationhood and the sovereignty of fellow UN members. Sure, it’s been a luxury for them to both benefit from and complain about our adherence to principle in this regard. They’ve behaved like inconsistent adolescents on many occasions. But seriously, Americans: get over it. It’s better to be the adult. With the move reported by JPost, Obama is abandoning the principled adult consistency that entitles a nation to leadership.
That consistent posture, backed with latent force, has been worth a dozen military actions or more since the end of World War II. Here is what Obama has done with his move this weekend: he has signaled to the world that if Israel doesn’t agree to the 90-day settlement freeze, one of the other four veto-equipped members of the Security Council may well have to be the adult and take order to the G-77 tantrum – peremptory declaration of a Palestinian state – looming in the UN.
Of the four – Britain, France, Russia, China – are you excited about the prospect of any of them donning this mantle? Do you expect them to exercise its privileges with any degree of impartial principle? For that matter, can any of them, acting individually, enforce a veto? The answer is no: taking order to eruptions from the UN is either done by the US, or it will require alliances among others that are increasingly to America’s disadvantage.
There is no sugar-coating it: the action reported by JPost is one of the dumbest things a US administration has ever done. If we are lucky, Team Obama will think better of it and back off quietly in a day or so. Objectively, Israel would be setting an evil precedent by agreeing to it; I can hardly see Netanyahu doing so. We can be thankful for that. But if this ultimatum gets legs – if it becomes a real decision point for either Israel or the US – that itself will set in motion a chain of events that will do incalculable damage to the international order. Israel can, in the short term, find another patron or patrons who see the value in affirming her sovereign national rights. But if she has to, the position of the US and the order that hinges on it will be lost.