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Bibi, the Failed Peace Process, and the Future of Linkage

Just days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with President Obama in the Oval Office, Israel approved new settlements in West Bank, a move that directly runs counter to U.S. national security interests.

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Just a few days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sat down with President Obama in the Oval Office to discuss the long-stalled Israel-Palestinian peace process and Israel’s ask for $5 billion in annual military aid, the occupying authority greenlighted 2,200 new settlement housing units and gave retroactive approval to two settlement outposts on the West Bank. The announcement constituted the latest in a long line of provocative Israeli gestures that run directly counter to long-standing U.S. policy.

It’s yet another example of Netanyahu’s defiance of both international opinion and U.S. national security interests, even while he asks Washington for more handouts of military and other assistance. Indeed, the news this week will largely play into Netanyahu’s narrative that he’s travelling to Washington to mend fences after the bruising Iran deal fight in which the Israeli prime minister and AIPAC fought tooth and nail against Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative. In addition to meeting Obama, Netanyahu will also be sitting down with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY)—one of only four Senate Democrats to break ranks with the White House and oppose the Iran deal—and he’s being hosted for events at both the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute and, more controversially, by the Center for American Progress.

(Full disclosure: I was a blogger for CAP’s “Think Progress” website but resigned after concluding that CAP’s leadership was unwilling to defend its employees if they were critical of AIPAC. More on that in Glenn Greenwald’s recent article for The Intercept.)

But all the kissing and making up this week comes at a cost, especially if you listen carefully to the words of Hillary Clinton and senior U.S. military leadership on the impact of paralysis on Washington’s position in the Middle East.

The Problem of Linkage

In 2010, General David Petraeus made shockwaves when, in his written testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he explained why the failure of peace process threatens U.S. security interests. He said:

The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Area of Responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas.

The concept expressed by Petraeus is known as “linkage,” the idea that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and furthering the long-term strategic interests of the U.S. in the Middle East are closely related. Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman labeled Petraeus’s linkage of these issues “dangerous and counterproductive,“ but a host of senior U.S. officials effectively endorsed this concept over the past five years.

In March 2011, for example, the commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Gen. James Mattis, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “lack of progress toward a comprehensive Middle East peace affects U.S. security interests in the region,” and “[the lack of a viable two-state solution] is one of many [issues] that is exploited by our adversaries in the region, and is used as a recruiting tool for extremist groups.”

Later that year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates expressed frustration with Netanyahu’s intransigence in the peace process and the costs incurred by standing by Israel. Jeffrey Goldberg, reporting on a meeting of the National Security Council Principals Committee, paraphrased Gates as complaining that “the U.S. has received nothing in return” for its security guarantees to Israel.

Even diplomat Dennis Ross, who appeared to assign all blame for the recent deterioration in U.S.-Israel relations to the Obama administration in his recent book, has given voice to the linkage concept. Despite writing skeptically of the concept—he and co-author David Makovsky characterized linkage as “the mother of all myths”—he effectively endorsed the concept in 2010 while speaking at an Anti-Defamation League event, saying:

Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges … It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.

Perhaps most importantly, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed the concept that the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bad for U.S. long term interests. In 2010, Clinton told an audience at the Brookings Institution:

… Iran and its proxies are not the only threat to regional stability or to Israel’s long-term security. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and [its] Arab neighbors is a source of tension and an obstacle to prosperity and opportunity for all the people of the region. It denies the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people and it poses a threat to Israel’s future security. It is at odds also with the interests of the United States.

Bibi in DC

A nuanced understanding of the consequences of the continuing conflict and how it threatens U.S. strategic interests all but evaporated over the past week as Clinton and CAP have tried to make nice to AIPAC and Netanyahu despite the latter’s campaign to derail the White House’s Iran nuclear deal.

CAP senior fellow Brian Katulis defended the decision to invite Netanyahu to the progressive think tank on the grounds that “It demonstrates at least a recognition that for the last couple of years there has been some effort to maybe make the support for Israel a partisan wedge issue in our politics,” he told The Hill. “And that’s generally bad for Israel and bad for the United States.”

And Hillary Clinton, who five years ago warned that the failure to advance the peace process is at odds with U.S. interests, took to the pages of The Forward last week, pledging to “reaffirm the unbreakable bond with Israel—and Benjamin Netanyahu” and invite Bibi to the White House in her first month as president.

With the Democratic front-runner and the Democrats’ most influential think tank effectively reassuring Netanyahu of their steadfast support, any serious discussion of the costs to U.S. regional credibility of Israel’s settlement expansion has been set aside, at least for now.

Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations at Americans for Peace Now, a Zionist organization that has campaigned for a two-state solution, says that now is the time to make major changes in a “fatally discredited peace process.” Last month, Friedman argued that the Obama administration has one opportunity to chart a new course for the peace process. She wrote:

To start, the United States should become a genuine partner to other members of the United Nations Security Council, cooperating to formulate and pass – rather than block and veto – resolutions laying down consensus red lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States should support the establishment of an international support group or similar body to lead efforts to revive peace talks, and should empower the existing Middle East Quartet to propose concrete consequences for actions that undermine the viability of the two-state outcome. The United States should welcome efforts by the European Union and countries around the world to implement policies distinguishing between Israel and the Occupied Territories, and join them in doing so. It should welcome a stronger role for faith leaders like the Pope on issues related to Jerusalem and holy sites. It should encourage Arab nations to be more engaged.

Indeed, handing over responsibility for settling the conflict to a multilateral body is a daunting prospect that many in Washington will oppose. But given the failure to advance the peace process over his two terms in office—and acknowledgement by Dennis Ross, Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus, James Mattis, and Robert Gates, among many other regional specialists, that the failure to reach a two-state solution is detrimental to U.S. security interests—Obama may find Friedman’s proposal, particularly in light of Netanyahu’s continuing defiance and subversion of U.S. national security interests, an increasingly appealing alternative to kicking the crisis down the road for the next administration.

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