June 3, 2009

Protectionism: Bad for Diplomacy Too

Israel can breathe easy. Diplomatic skirmishing over Iran and settlements in the West Bank is no big deal, President Obama said so himself. Contrary to a New York Times report that his administration is considering a tougher stance against Israel, America has no plans to change the relationship.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak stopped by the White House today to make sure of that, Obama's last meeting before he left for Cairo.

Unfortunately for the Middle East peace process, disagreement between America and Israeli would be more productive than maintaining the status quo. Competition breeds innovation. It is precisely America’s incontrovertible support of Israel that infuriates so many Muslims and Muslim states, from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.

That’s why the recent New York Times report carried a glimmer of hope for those who sympathize with the Palestinians. At last America would use its leverage with Israel - economic assistance, weapons contracts, diplomatic protection - to forge a fair two-state solution, one with a chance of enduring the centuries.

But it was nothing more than a dream. A real rift never existed and there will be no fundamental change to the system. Obama isn’t the first president to disagree with Israel’s actions in Palestine yet keep the relationship as is, but he must realize that he has already dashed many hopes.

Not the hope of ill treatment against Israel, but of unbiased relations equal to America’s other allies and Muslim states.

In reality few of America’s punitive designs would succeed in altering Israel’s behavior. Israel still welcomes American assistance, but the two states have worked for years on minimizing economic hand outs as Israel’s economy diversified into the most sophisticated market in the Middle East.

The American flow of high-grade weapons technology to Israel stands in the same position. Israel could always use more weapons from the most advanced arms manufacturer in the world, but Israel has also built its own robust military-industrial complex. While cutting off American dollars and bombs would sting, Israel would retain the ability to defend itself.

But an unnamed American official mentioned one option that could pressure Israel where it hurts. Again, the goal is not to treat Israel poorly, only fairly in comparison to the rest of the region. Israel has grown too comfortable in its relationship with America and gives the impression that it’s in control, as evidenced by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated refusal to halt settlement expansion and his claim over Jerusalem.

This could change if America repositions its protectionist stance with Israel in the UN, and the perfect opportunity has been presented.

Richard Goldstone, a South African judge, entered Gaza earlier this week with the mission of investigating possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas. His 15 member team, appointed by the UN, will have a week to survey the destruction before presenting its findings in August. Whatever is found must see the light of justice.

Both Israel and Hamas likely committed war crimes during their war in January. Israel despises being lumped together with Hamas, but its response, however justified from Hamas rockets, was as disproportionate as it was counterproductive. Assume that Hamas committed war crimes. This doesn’t give Israel the right to respond in kind, nor should it want to stoop to the level of a terrorist organization.

The usual argument, made by Obama and Tony Blair among others, is that no democracy would stand idle as rockets rained on its cities and people. This argument is flawed though. Most countries would react, but every reaction isn’t necessarily correct. Israel initiated a counterinsurgency with massive air bombardment and left Gaza in ruins for the world to view.

An eye for an eye makes the world blind.

If Israel didn’t break or bend the international laws of war, it certainly ignored the laws of guerrilla warfare. Except for slowing the fire of rockets and attracting a modicum of Muslim criticism towards Hamas, Israel failed to achieve its self-stated objectives of removing Hamas, permanently ending rocket fire, and destroying Gaza’s extensive tunnel system. The battle never ends in guerrilla warfare and Israel has been harassed by war crimes allegations that it can't keep running from.

Whether Israel committed war crimes during in Gaza is for Goldstone’s team to conclude. What is known though is that Israel’s only line of defense in the UN is America, and now is the time to apply pressure. Israel cares little for the UN, but loosening America’s absolutist protectionism would demonstrate to the world that it’s serious about promoting equality in the Middle East and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And maybe the message would get through to Israel too.

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