Monday, March 17, 2008

McCain, Obama and the Middle East: What Conservative Mudslingers Don’t Want You To Know, Gidon D. Remba

Published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle, March 13, 2008
(Expanded Version)

Anti-Obamanauts have flayed the Democratic presidential hopeful with claims that former Carter National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Clinton Mideast aide Robert Malley were anti-Israel advisors to Obama. In fact, neither is among Obama’s primary Middle East counselors, and neither is anti-Israel. But what conservative mudslingers don’t want you to know is that there are more than ample grounds to raise the same false suspicions over what a President John McCain’s Israel policies might be as there are over a President Barack Obama’s.

The very ideas invoked by the fear-mongers to frighten Jewish voters away from Obama are endorsed by at least one of McCain’s key foreign policy advisors: former G.W.H Bush National Security Advisor Brent Scrowcroft. The new tack, common to many Republicans and Democrats who view the Middle East through a “realist” lens, not only bucks the calamitous Middle East nostrums of George W. Bush and the “experienced” Dick Cheney. It learns the lessons of past failures, deploying a different compass to navigate around the errors of previous thrusts at Arab-Israeli peacemaking.

In the run-up to the Annapolis Palestinian-Israeli peace summit this past November, a group of prominent Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts sent a letter to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice titled “Failure Risks Devastating Consequences.” The letter, signed and initiated by Scowcroft, Brzezinski and others, urged the administration to insure that “the conference…. focus on the endgame and endorse the contours of a permanent peace.” And it spelled out precisely what those contours should look like.

One distinguishing feature of this innovative approach is that its authors urge the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council to provide Israelis and Palestinians, for the first time, with the clear guidance of a well-defined international consensus on the outline of a permanent peace treaty. No longer will Palestinian radicals be able to claim that there is a basis in international law, or support in the international community, for the return of refugees to former homes and villages in Israel. The Security Council would once and for all put that claim to rest, insuring that all understand the solution must not violate the essential premise of a two-state solution.

Protest though they may, Jewish extremists will be forced to recognize that the U.S. and the entire international community now affirm that Jerusalem must be the home of two capitals, and that the final borders will based on the 1967 lines with minor agreed modifications reflecting an equal land swap. This sends a resounding message to the messianic fanatics of the Jewish settlement movement, and to other Jewish hardliners, that the international consensus and the U.S. position is now no longer in doubt: settlements outside these lines will have to be removed under a peace agreement, and the amount of territory to be annexed to Israel in the final deal will be limited by the need to provide an equal land swap to the state of Palestine.

The new approach gives a shot in the arm to moderates on both sides, strengthening leaders who seek a fair compromise. It also telegraphs to Olmert and Abbas that the U.S. and the rest of the international community expect them to negotiate within these now-universally accepted parameters.

A second new element in this approach pertains to Hamas. The foreign policy mavins—again including one of McCain’s senior advisors—believe “that a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation; it could be conducted, for example, by the UN and Quartet Middle East envoys.” They suggest that “promoting a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point.”

The Scrowcroft-Brzezinski letter warns the Bush administration that repeating the old errors will once again doom the peace process, a prediction which looks increasingly like the present reality: “If Syria or Hamas is ostracized,” they warn, “prospects that they will play a spoiler role increase dramatically. This could take the shape of escalating violence from the West Bank or from Gaza, either of which would overwhelm any political achievement, increase the political cost of compromises for both sides, and negate Israel's willingness or capacity to relax security restrictions. By the same token, a comprehensive cease-fire or prisoner exchange is not possible without Hamas's cooperation.”

Third, the U.S. and its allies can no longer remain complacent about the yawning gap between rhetoric and reality, whether regarding settlements or security. The letter reminds the administration that “unless both sides see concrete improvements in their lives, political agreements are likely to be dismissed as mere rhetoric, further undercutting support for a two-state solution.” Israel’s failure to remove settlement outposts and unnecessary roadblocks, much like tepid Palestinian security and anti-terror moves, are not frozen into the Middle East landscape like Lot’s wife. They are changeable if the U.S. and its allies muster the will to do what it takes. In short, Israelis and Palestinians can’t get there on their own. It takes a village; a global village.

Finally, we have a report on McCain’s own remarks on what his Israel policy would look like were he elected president. The Forward reports that “Nearly two years ago, a Ha'aretz reporter wrote that he had asked McCain if resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue would require movement toward the 1967 armistice lines with minor territorial modifications, and McCain had nodded in the affirmative. The senator had added that if elected president, he would ask both sides to make sacrifices and would send ‘the smartest guy I know’ to the Middle East. That person could be the elder George Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, or his secretary of state, James Baker, ‘though I know that you in Israel don't like Baker.’” When a hawkish Orthodox American Jewish newspaper bashed McCain over this story, he denied its accuracy; the Ha’aretz reporter stands by his report.

If, as Obama’s critics claim, he is privately “critical of U.S. bias toward Israel and lack of sensitivity to Arabs” and “very supportive of U.S. pressure on Israel,” and if a President Obama did indeed act to prod the Israeli government to begin to roll back West Bank settlements and the Palestinians to deliver real security, moving to enact the bipartisan Scowcroft-Brzezinski recommendations, he would at long last do the very thing that Israel needs most, which recent presidents have lacked the courage to do. It is precisely this failure of vision and will on the part of American leaders, especially President Bush, which has allowed Israel to fall deeper into an abyss from which it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach for a two-state accommodation. Presidents Ford, Carter and G. H. W. Bush all had the chutzpah to press Israel and the Arabs to do what they needed, even if it was politically unpopular at the time. And each contributed mightily to Israel’s security.

Now we learn that “a senior US official” is predicting that “Washington is likely to pressure Israel and the Palestinian Authority to make significant” progress “before US President George W. Bush visits the region in May,” according to Ha’aretz. The administration official says that the U.S. wants Israel to “start evacuating illegal settlement outposts” and is “disappointed by Israel’s inaction and its refrain of ‘we are still negotiating with the settlers.’” It wants Israel to move “parts of the separation fence from the West Bank to the Green Line,” an affirmation that not only security but political considerations have been factored into fixing its present course. It believes that “enacting a law to compensate settlers who leave the West Bank voluntarily…would demonstrate Israel’s seriousness about a two-state solution.” The unnamed senior U.S. official concluded with harsh criticism of the Israeli government’s Palestinian strategy: “The current Israeli approach to daily Palestinian life strengthens Hamas in Gaza.” News flash: George W. Bush wants a better Mideast legacy. And it took him only seven and a half years to discover the first hints of what must be done.

We can only hope that Barack Obama is the leader who will put an end to the indulgent friendship in which George W. Bush has long bathed Israel. John McCain might do much the same. Like true American heroes, perhaps neither will wait until the sun is setting on his term in office and new rivers of blood have been carved into the region’s scorched topography.

Good friends don’t let friends drink and drive. They take the keys and drive them home until they regain sobriety. Now that’s what true friendship is all about.

Gidon D. Remba is a veteran Israel activist and commentator. He blogs at and can be reached at

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