Almost three decades ago, I served as a White House Fellow for a year, working at the State Department on Middle East peace and having meals and seminars with Cabinet members, members of Congress, journalists, and scholars three times a week. From the President and Vice President and their staffs and from so many members of the Administration, we learned leadership skills and we were encouraged to offer “private sector” advice on programs and policies. Since then, the dozen of us who served at the White House and various Cabinet agencies have joined other alumni of the program, now numbering over 500 people, in a three-day annual Conference in Washington, D.C., meeting with those in the present Administration and others engaged in politics and policy. (Among our well-known alumni are Colin Powell, Wesley Clark, Sanjay Gupta and several members of Congress.)
I never tire of walking past the lit up White House on the night that I arrive and then going in the next day, as I did this year, first visiting with President Obama’s new Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk (by the way, a Reconstructionist!). I always use my time in Washington to not only attend the official White House Fellows events, but to see former political colleagues and meet new ones in government and in Think Tanks around town.
One of the issues that we focused on was the Middle East. Here’s a summary of what I heard from a number of people in on and off-the-record briefings:
1. Syria – Was it wise of President Obama to avoid bombing Syria so as not to create “collateral damage” – terrible casualties? Would bombing have strengthened the rebels against President Assad or would an eventual rebel victory be worse? Did President Putin truly come to the rescue or is Putin’s involvement a delaying tactic? The crisis of millions of displaced Syrians in this civil war is truly tragic, but is it too soon or too late for the United States to play a significant role? As we heard from both Democrats and Republicans, President George W. Bush’s overzealous war policy in Iraq and Afghanistan has made President Obama reluctant to open new fronts. When President Obama said, “Assad has to go,” the rhetoric was dramatic, but no plan was put in place. One of the criticisms that we heard several times about President Obama was, that although he has made greater use of drones and targeted assassinations than President Bush, his rhetoric has run ahead of his decision-making on Egypt, Syria, Iran and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
2. Iran – Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu may not be happy, but the United States has decided to ease sanctions and test Iran, echoing President Reagan’s approach to the former USSR: “trust, but verify.” France, Saudi Arabia and Israel are strange bedfellows, who are worried about “appeasing Iran” by loosening sanctions. While President Obama gets lots of credit from both Republicans and Democrats for tightening international sanctions, the Administration knows that, in a negotiation, each side’s moderation needs to be rewarded. But the big question is: “Is Iran more ‘Argo’ or ‘Ruhani’?” Is the West in denial about the real power of Iran’s new leader or will Iran really stop its nuclear bomb program?
3. Egypt – This is where the Arab Spring really blossomed and then sputtered, through street protests followed by the whiplash of “fundamentalist pseudo-democracy.” From Mubarak to Morsi to the generals (who preferred Mubarak), the Arab Spring has become a mess that has primarily helped Israel make the case to delay peace talks with the Palestinians, comparing Egypt’s divided society to the Palestinians who want to talk (on the West Bank) to Hamas (in Gaza) that withholds recognition. While Egypt and the Arab world may achieve democracy one day, instability and chaos are the reality today.
4. Israeli-Palestinian peace – President Obama has learned what every United States President – Democrat and Republican – has learned. You can’t push Israeli-Palestinian peace faster than Israel and the Palestinians want it, unless you are willing to risk huge political capital and say: Here’s the peace plan. We need you to agree because the status quo is bad for you, us and the world. For that approach to work, American Jews would have to be on board and support President Obama over Prime Minister Netanyahu. That probably won’t happen, so all that the United States can do is support the peace forces among the Israelis and Palestinians and hope for the best. Despite Secretary of State Kerry’s tenacious shuttle diplomacy and his ability to keep leaks to a minimum, President Obama is shifting his attention to more likely winnable places like Europe and Asia. Moreover, the President wants to promote his domestic agenda – healthcare, jobs and immigration reform – so don’t expect any dramatic breakthroughs in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Time is not on Israel’s side given the demographics/high birthrate of the Palestinians. Still Israelis don’t seem overly concerned. In fact, the 75% of Israelis who used to support a two-state peace deal have been replaced by a new generation – more than half of whom won’t make peace on the “Clinton parameters,” according to the Israel Democracy Institute.
Among the young, there has been a growth in right wing parties and a rightward shift in the population, so that 49% of Jews now say that Arabs shouldn’t be able to vote in a two-state referendum. While a majority of Israelis still favor a two-state solution theoretically, some reject its specifics – a demilitarized Palestinian state and withdrawal to the 1967 borders with minor land swaps (worried about the loss of settlement blocs and Palestinian control over certain Jewish neighborhoods.)
A new voice for peace, however, is coming from 200 top business leaders from Israel and the West Bank – Jews and Palestinians who vocally support Secretary Kerry. Yossi Vardi, the godfather of Israel’s Silicon Valley, and Munib al-Masri, the richest man in Palestine, have formed “Breaking The Impasse,” to bring financial muscle and political influence upon Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to move towards peace. Abbas is weak and Netanyahu is arrogant (to both the United States and the Palestinians), so peace is not on the horizon.
Even though this year is the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, some Israelis, like Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon, have called for annulling the historic agreement.
While both the Palestinian and Israeli leadership are to blame for the present and continuing impasse, the Israelis have been especially frustrating to the Administration. Israel is an impressive, democratic country and an economic powerhouse with 11 Nobel Prize winners, 120 companies on NASDAQ, 25% of the world’s new high tech ventures and the strongest, most technologically advanced military in the Middle East, and yet, it’s caught between nationalism, religion and liberalism, creating so many unresolved paradoxes and too much paralysis.
Hopefully, the Israelis and Palestinians will “dare to fail,” in journalist Tom Friedman’s words. We make history, he said, by risking, and by letting “the necessary meet the impossible.” Perhaps, one day, both sides might be relieved and surprised that such daring led to success.
May such daring happen, as it says in our tradition, speedily in our day.
Rabbi Arnold Rachlis