Thursday, May 26, 2011

Bibi Better Have a Plan B

As Benjamin Netanyahu comes home to much public acclaim for his performance in D.C. (according to a Haaretz poll), more far-seeing Israelis seem to be saying that, OK, Bibi earned some style points, but . . . what happens now?  For except for that glittering performance before an adoring Congress, he came home, essentially, empty-handed.  Even the normally Israeliphile NY Times makes the point that many in Israel, who expected Netanyahu to create a viable path back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians, see that he did nothing of the kind.  From the diplomatic standpoint, Bibi's trip was a failure.

Likewise, in the US and elsewhere outside Israel, more knowledgeable commentators (I especially recommend the essays from Henry Siegman, Patrick Seale, Tony Karon, and Robert Dreyfuss) have made the same point: Netanyahu created no real opening to peace, but did a spectacular job of playing to Congress as well as throwing red meat to Republicans eager to use the issue of Israel vs. Palestinians as a wedge to drive voters away from Obama.  There's a nice synergy of partisan-political upsides there, because Bibi also can say to his Likud party and to pro-settlements members of his ruling coalition (like Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's Shas party) that he gave nothing away to an American president who spoke of returning to 1967's "indefensible" boundaries.

But Bibi had better be thinking a few years down the road . . . or, for that matter, a few months.  As the NYT piece noted, one of Israel's leading dailies,  Yediot Aharonot, ran a cartoon that
"showed Mr. Netanyahu’s returning plane flying near a volcano. Inside the plane someone says, “All in all, it was a very successful visit.” From the volcano, smoke rises that spells out “S-E-P-T-E-M-B-E-R.”

September is when the UN meets again, and where Israel may be facing a General Assembly vote to recognize officially a Palestinian state.  Pro-Israel lobbies and American Jewish groups are already hard at work shmoozing and cajoling delegations from countries all over the world:
Jewish groups are looking to the Caribbean for support, meeting with representatives of Haiti, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Lucia and Antigua. They are talking with Central American countries such as Panama and Costa Rica.

In Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria are being lobbied as possible "no" votes. Kenya is on the list. So are Pacific Island nations such as Kiribati and Vanuatu.

No country is too small. Lobbyists for Israel will be schmoozing up the tiny principalities of Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino, which wield the same clout in the full member body as China or Russia.

They may be fighting an uphill battle at this point.  But looming over the horizon is an eventuality that Bibi ignores at his peril: the pending decline of American power, and, ergo, America's ability to intimidate Israel's neighbors into acquiescing in the kind of intransigence to which Bibi has become so accustomed.  Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett are, to my knowledge, among the very few with the prescience to raise this - and they take their cue from Obama's speech to AIPAC, where he  said:
There is a reason why the Palestinians are pursuing their interests at the United Nations.  They recognize that there is an impatience with the peace process—or the absence of one.  Not just in the Arab world, but in Latin America, in Europe, and in Asia.  That impatience is growing and is already manifesting itself in capitols around the world…

[T]he march to isolate Israel internationally—and the impulses of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations—will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.  For us to have leverage with the Palestinians, with the Arab states, and with the international community, the basis for negotiations has to hold out the prospect of success.”

In their estimation, what Obama was alluding to was this:
The language used by the President describes this changing context in terms of an “impatience” with continued irresolution that “is already manifesting itself in capitals around the world” and “is growing”.  At the same time, there is a subtly conveyed assessment that this impatience is growing not just in predictable places, like the Arab world and Europe, but also in Latin America (with Brazil in the lead) and Asia (where the world’s greatest concentration of rising powers is found).  In other words, impatience is growing in precisely the non-OECD parts of the world that will gain relative power and influence at the expense of the United States in coming years.   

That is why, in the President’s words, “we cannot afford to wait another decade, or another two decades, or another three decades, to achieve peace.”  Obama justifies his position on the grounds that “the world is moving too fast” and that “the extraordinary challenges facing Israel would only grow”.  But what this really means is that, in coming years, America’s ability to continuing shielding Israel from the consequences of its own benighted choices will shrink.  America’s commitment to Israel’s security may be, as Obama described it, “unwavering”.  But the extent to which that unwavering commitment actually translates into incremental security for Israel will almost certainly decline in the future.

From Obama’s perspective, the inference Israelis should draw from his words is:  strike a deal now, before the ability of the United States to protect you in the rather comprehensive way it does now erodes in strategically consequential ways.  We have no confidence that Israel, even under whatever ruling coalition follows the current Netanyahu government, will take Obama’s words to heart and act on them.  But we are struck that Obama has implicitly acknowledged a reality we have been highlighting for some time—that, in terms of its ability to affect on-the-ground outcomes and achieve its own stated policy goals in the Middle East, the United States is a declining power.  

The vast majority of commentators have framed their analyses within a paradigm of continued US pre-eminence across the globe, and continued US ability and will to enforce what Obama referred to as an "ironclad" guarantee of Israel's security.  Yet even in recent years, we've seen that there is nothing "ironclad" in the ability of the US military hyper-power to guarantee any proposed outcome: not in Iraq, not in Afghanistan, not in Libya.  That hyper-power now struggles with a fragile economy, trillions of dollars of debt, and an infrastructure with roads and bridges in such disrepair that recent estimates peg the cost of refurbishing them at $1.5 trillion. 

Americans will soon be faced with some difficult choices and will need to make major sacrifices if the US is to regain its footing.  Can Bibi be so certain that, when that time comes, the American people will be willing to forgo their own futures in order to rescue an ally so reckless and uncompromising as Israel has been?

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