The War as Warm-Up Act for Obama

Gershom Gorenberg

I’ve been asked whether the Gaza War was deliberately timed to take advantage of the American interregnum, with the aim of avoiding U.S. diplomatic involvement. Since it will be 40 years before the archives open and we can read the minutes of the cabinet meetings, I can’t answer that question with any certainty now.

But if that was the intent, as I explain this morning in Ha’aretz, the effect is likely to be very different from what Olmert, Livni and Barak hoped for.  For those who read from East to West, the Hebrew original of my article is here. The translation is here.

The diplomatic timing for the war looked lovely. The U.S. president who loved military action was still in power, though fading into the shadows. The new president, dynamic and popular, hadn’t yet entered office. There was no one to interfere, to pressure us to stop.

We don’t know if the Olmert-Livni-Barak triumvirate deliberately picked that window of opportunity. If so, it already looks like another of the war’s mistakes – perhaps the only welcome miscalculation. For instead of preventing American involvement, their decision to go to war on the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration may well force him to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian arena and push for a diplomatic solution.

In recent months, foreign-policy experts from Obama’s camp have debated whether there’s any point in a new peace initiative. Robert Malley, known as the most dovish veteran of Bill Clinton’s peace team, has written – surprisingly – that such an effort is hopeless. In an article in the New York Review of Books (written with Hussein Agha), Malley argues that the weakness of Israel’s leadership and the Palestinian political rift will prevent a two-state solution at present. Arguing the opposite, former ambassador Martin Indyk – who is likely to join the Obama administration – writes in Foreign Affairs of the “urgent need for a diplomatic effort.” The Middle East can’t be ignored, say Indyk and co-author Richard Haass. It will “force itself onto the U.S. president’s agenda.”

The Gaza War proves Indyk’s thesis. After the years of neglect under Bush, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has blown up again, on Obama’s doorstep. Grim photos appear in the media. Relations between Israel and Turkey, both American allies, are crumbling. While careful not to conduct foreign relations before the inauguration, Obama promised last week that his team would become “immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process.” At her confirmation hearing for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke of the “tragic humanitarian costs” borne by Gazans and of the incoming administration’s “determination to seek a peace agreement.”

Read the rest in Hebrew here, or in English here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment

16 thoughts on “The War as Warm-Up Act for Obama”

  1. Interesting piece. I tend to doubt that Obama has the courage to put the necessary pressure on Israel though. Something more than Barak’s “generous offer” will need to be forthcoming.

  2. Good, you pointed out how the Arab/Israeli conflict has “forced itself onto Obama’s agenda”. But does this mean he can actually do anything about it? There were major outbreaks of violence during the time of Clinton’s hyperactive administration, including the outbreak of the major suicide bomber war in 2000, and the major “Grapes of Wrath” Israeli bombardment of Lebanon in 1996 which Peres initiated so that he could look “tough” in the upcoming election (just like Livni and Barak this time, no?) These occurred at the height of Clinton’s involvement in the conflict and when intensive negotiations were taking place between the sides. So this proves that violence has nothing do with “neglect” by a particular Administration. It is due to irreconcilable differences between the sides.
    You, and other “progressives” like MJ Rosenberg seem to be addicted to the “Great Man” theory of history…some Titanic figure enters the world stage and makes gigantic changes. However, the Arab/Israeli conflict goes way beyond what any one man, or even what any one superpower can do about it. It involved cultural and religious values of many nations and hundreds of millions of people. It is being rumored that Obama will come to some Arab capital, like Damascus, and make an impassioned speech about how his new Administration wants a new start with the Arab world. Are the Arabs going to change their world view because of this speech? Let’s say he somehow convinces them that he is friendlier to their interests than past Presidents. Is that make it more or less likely they will make concessions to Israel in order to reach a peace agreement? Will this strengthen or weaken the radical states that Obama supposedly wants to reach out to? Is what they want various “grievances” addressed or do they simply want to expand their power?

    In monitoring the writings of various Leftist Zionists such as South Jerusalem, MJ Rosenberg, Bernard Avishai , MagnesZionist and others, this latest war has been a real torture. This is because the war was carried out, NOT by the usual bete noirs of these “progressives”, i.e. “Likudniks”, Judea/Samaria “settlers” or Haredim, but by a government enthusiastically endorsed by these “progressives” in which none of these “enemy forces” are represented (yes, SHAS is in the coalition, but they were included as a mere decoration so it couldn’t be said that no religious Jews were represented in the gov’t, in reality that party has no influence on gov’t policy). Olmert was the man who in the not too distant past spoke to the far-Left Israel Policy Forum of MJ Rosenberg, and with tears in his eyes was telling them that Israel can’t fight any more, that Israel has to give up everthing captured in the Six Day War, how he was wrong his whole life in opposing the “progressives”.
    But what is worse is how the “progressives” I mentioned are constantly being reminded of their double-standards….they curse the Judea/Samaria “settlers”, but they, at the same time, defend Israel’s taking over the land the Palestinian refugees abandoned, all in order to set up a state based on “ethnic-religious” lines which is ANATHEMA to the “progressive” ideology which abhors such thing for white people, or more specifically, Jews (Muslims are allowed such things, they are allowed to impose Sharia Law, they are allowed to divide India on religious lines to set up Pakistan and then drive out and disposess the Hindus and Sikhs, but please don’t ask me how these “progessives” reconcile their contradictory positions).

    As a result, our pro-Zionist “progressive” friends are in a severe state of angst and guilt and they are longing for someone to step in and relieve them of their guilt feelings. Obama seems to fit the bill. Thus they are all writing that Obama will find it imperative to step and and solve this long-term Arab-Israeli conflict in order to solve their own deep psychological crisis. Will Obama do what they want, or will he more objectively judge the situation and realize that it is NOT amenable to easy solutions based simply on Obama stepping in a bashing Arab and Israeli heads together. We will soon see.

  3. Y. Ben-David, you say that “So this proves that violence has nothing do with “neglect” by a particular Administration. It is due to irreconcilable differences between the sides.”

    I would point out that among those “irreconcilable differences” are the growth in settlements over the years, even recent years. This makes we want to go back and do the research on the list of announcements of settlement growth and expansion over the last 8 years alone. To say that the US cannot make a difference, simply look at the amount of aid and loan guarantees provided to Israel over the last 8 years. Were it not for these funds, government funds would not be available to support this growth and expansion of settlements.

    I sit here in Princeton, NJ and read stories about how the towns in NJ fight tooth and nail to prevent useful construction of things like cell phone towers because the townspeople do not want it to be a mark on their scenery. Can you possibly imagine how people would feel if their land was taken and then built upon by what might be considered an invading force?

    The current Gaza war, with reports of the IDF firing in the “direction” of where fire was coming from has clearly resulted in horrible, horrible tragedy for Gaza civilians. Note just yesterday the terrible loss of a Gaza doctor’s 3 daughters; a doctor who served Israelis and worked tirelessly for peace.

    Note also that I do not dismiss at all the loss of Israeli innocents resulting from years of terrorist activity by Palestinians. These losses are equally tragic.

    I would also argue that of the 1.5 million people living in Gaza, most simply want to live peaceful lives, raising their families. The same is surely true for the Israelis.

    It is the extremists on both sides who manage to hold the rational among the two groups as hostages.

    I now come back to the ability of the US to influence the outcome. If the US is to work toward solving the Iran problem, what better way than to start by solving the Israel-Palestine problem and remove the ability of Iran to fuel the rage by funding and arming the terrorists.

    The key, in my opinion, will be a clear statement from the US to Israel that settlement growth and expansion must simply cease completely in its tracks. The recent reduction by $1 billion in loan guarantees as a result of settlement growth simply has no effect.

    If this lack of action on the part of the US over the last 8 years is not viewed as “neglect,” then I do not know what does.

    I wait, with hope, to see if the Obama team and Obama himself are able to construct a dialogue to overcome these years of neglect with both action, and a rationale that makes the result both politically viable for Israel as well as reducing any shouts of victory on the Arab side for such action. I would suggest and hope that he is indeed someone willing to do the “right thing” and not let his re-election plans tarnish his thinking. It will certainly not be easy.

  4. Bob-
    The Arab/Israeli conflict has nothing to do with the settlements in Judea/Samaria. There were massive outbreaks of Arab violence or wars in 1920, 1920, 1929, 1936-9, 1947-8, 1956 and 1967…all of these before Israel came into control of Judea/Samaria/Gaza. The suicide bomber war of 2000 and the current Gaza War started when governments committed to withdrawal from almost all of Judea/Samaria were in power and offers of this withdrawal were on the table. All the Arab have to do is say “yes” and the settlements will go. But they won’t say yes, because they consider Tel Aviv to be an “illegal settlement”, they consider myself, in addition to Gershon and Haim to be “illegal settlers” (we are all immigrants to Israel) and they intend to keep up the struggle until the state of Israel is eradicated (G-d forbid). Sure they make what seem to be a series of “reasonable” demands and expression of grievances and say things like “there won’t be peace unless the settlements go”, but this statement does NOT mean, according to the rules of logic, that there will be peace if they do go. HAMAS says all of this explicitly whereas FATAH and other “moderates” like the Egyptians cloak their extremism in amiguous statements like the examples I gave.
    This is what Obama is up against. There is no possibility of a contractual peace agreement ending the conflict…the only solution is a gradual awakening on the part of the Arabs that Israel is not going to disappear and so Israel must stop grovelling and offering endless territorial concessions in order for the Arabs to finally realize this.

  5. I second the excellent comments by Mr. Monsour. Israel always insists that the spotlight be placed on whatever aggressive action is currently underway, such as the rockets, while a quick look at a map of the West Bank will show not only the large settlements within the security barrier but other smaller settlements scattered as thick as pepper grounds over the entire area.

    While we have been directed to look at this outrage or that one by the Palestinians, their promised land has been effectively lost and they have been made prisoners within it.

    Aaron David Miller has been quoted saying that in 20 years of experience, not once were the settlements even mentioned as a barrier to peace in U.S. talks with Israeli prime ministers.

    Comparing the map of 1948 to the present, it is obvious that the rug has been pulled from under the Palestinians and, since 1967, rather than peace, Israel, by permitting its citizens to act without restraint as documented in Gershom’s book, has indicated it wants the land, all of it.

    This has only happened because there has been one single ally that can be depended on to look the other way and join in a nose-thumbing of the world while keeping the weapons pipeline running smoothly. No tunnels needed for Israel, products flown right to the door complete with full instructions and training in use.

    The whole thing is the height of irony because who, in the beginning, would not hesitate to use terror to gain a land, that now denounces it when used by others fighting for the land they see as just as precious?

    The Jews have created a vibrant county and they have in the past had much sympathy from the world. This sympathy has steadily dwindled away while that for the Palestinians has grown in direct proportion to the degree to which Israel has risen from struggle to regional uncontested supremacy from which position it pounds a people (at any time of Israels choosing) who have lost almost everything and lose more each day.

    The symbol of Israel has changed from the sunburned kibbutznik breaking the soil to the speeding settler gliding down roads built only for him on the land of another, while the supposed possessor of that land is under strict rules about when and where he can even cross that road.

    It’s ugly – very ugly – just as ugly as what America has been doing for the past 8 years and it’s time for a change for both bosom buddies.

  6. As a nobody, here’s what I think: Israel as a State has made a serious mistake (which will mean nothing to the 1000+ dead). I have little doubt that the Gaza campaign’s timing is indeed related to the Presidental change. As such, the State of Israel has expended most if not all good will which the Obama Administration might have had. Obama remained silent because there was nothing he could do. He signed off on the “understanding” because it stops the direct killing (some will still likely die in Hospital) and because he can use that accord to change the goals: if the Gazan tunnels are to be closed down (the only way to stop their use for importing weapons), the last port for the importation of goods into Gaza also closes. So I think the Administration will want international monitoring of the Gazan boarder to close the tunnels and will then say to Israel: “We have closed them. Now the Gazan economy is completely strangulated. Open the economic boarders.” And doing that is the only way to ultimately stop militants–provide a life alternative.
    The arrogance bred of Bush and Olmert will now slap Israel back. Rocket firings into Israel will continue at lower pace (how can the hatred be any less after these 20 days?), but Israel will be trapped: if the boarders have been closed for weapons imports, there can be do reason for not beginning economic imports (I know, I know, all economic imports risk military ones; Israel can figure a way around that–I have faith in their technological prowess).
    Obama and Western Europe will view Israeli foregin policy with doubt and distaste, I suspect. Israel will not be trusted. Only someone completely unaware of what it means to have the first African-American President could think that these 20 days of war killing over 1000 could naught but harm Israel in the new Administration’s eyes.
    Does my opinion make me an anti-Semite? Do I deny the Holocaust? Am I a closet anti-Zionist? Label me! What a great power that is.
    No one owns the Holocaust. No one owns the Soviet Gulags. No one owns Rwanda. No one owns the Warsaw Ghetto of history. No one owns the unnumbered pogroms of the past. And, frankly, I am tired of being afraid to speak of 1000 dead. Since Grapes of Wrath I have had great doubts about Israel’s ontology of other people. In my small, biased, racist mind–these doubts stand confirmed.

  7. Ben-David

    “The suicide bomber war of 2000 and the current Gaza War started when governments committed to withdrawal from almost all of Judea/Samaria (sic) were in power and offers of this withdrawal were on the table. All the Arab have to do is say “yes” and the settlements will go”


    The Palestinians said ‘yes’ to the Oslo process and what did they get? 100,000 new Israeli settlers into the West Bank and Gaza (doubling the settler population), a further 40,000 acres of Palestinian land confiscated, and 250 miles of settler roads built on confiscated lands.

    If all the Palestinians had to do is say ‘yes’ and all settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem would disappear, I think they might just say it, don’t you?

  8. Settlements can be built, and removed, ie Gaza. The core issue is that Israel has been contructed on Islamic Waqf, and the Palestinians were defeated by apes, pigs, and dogs, rather than a worthy foe. Honor requires the Palestinian people to regain Palestine using force. Remember that the PLO was founded in 1964, before there were any settlements in occupied territories, unless you regard Tel Aviv as a settlement as well. While I think most Israelis would favor evacuation of territories if it would bing peace, we dont particularly want Iranian troops and missiles aimed from E Jerusalem. No critic of Israel can provide ironclad assurance that this will not happen. WE trust the current situation of warfare and conflict over your worthless and poorly intentioned assurances

  9. I’ll be interested to see what Obama is able to bring to the table. But I think it’s a mistake to believe, as one of the less shrill respondents already mentioned, that just because Israel and Palestine are in the front pages, they will necessarily become a foreign policy priority. Time will tell, but if Obama showed what consistent quality in his campaign, it was a commitment to pragmatism. I don’t believe he’ll really break ranks on Israel unless he says practical benefit to the US’s longterm foreign interests. (Which, at the moment, are much more focused on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.)

  10. This shrill one shrills: If the Palestinian conflict were just about Israel, you would be right, Max. But America has supported and covered Israel for decades, and this relationship is now part of the Islamist myth/story. Battle against Islamist terror requires battle against their story. I suspect, shrilly hope, Obama knows this. What happens in Palestine (however defined) is no longer just about Palestine. It is important for policy related to all four countries you mention that this conflict be addressed forcefully.

    Acutally, I wish this were not the case.

  11. I don’t know what to say except that your response is precisely what I imagine Obama is not going to be interested in. to battle islamist terror one must battle ‘their story?’ why, exactly? what realpolitik advantage does this bring to the US? isn’t battling the islamist “story” just another way to further inflame the rhetoric of hatred coming from both sides?

    forgive me, but I don’t see anything wise about that kind of course. and frankly, it strikes me as one more fantasy of a culture warrior, who isn’t yet ready to admit that American foreign policy is going to shifting gears from ‘storybook’ mode to ‘responsible governance’ mode.

    again, time will tell. but I’m not putting my money on your take.

  12. Israel has to understand that there has been a basic shift in the attitudes of the American people. The amount of disgust and disappointment towards Israel, much of it coming from informed American Jews, is volcanic. The only solution will be for the settlements to go, along with Hamas, and for Jerusalem to be a divided city. Israel is not ‘playing with a full deck’ if it believes that this was in any way a victory or even a good object lesson. The lesson was that Israel is irrational, cruel and oblivious…not a good image for the incoming administration.

  13. Realpolitick advantage, Max: the battle over terrorism rests in support networks, in material and motivational support. You battle not by condemning others, but insisting that others be allowed to build. Culture war? To say that the Gazans deserve to eat better, to work for their economy, to not be isolated from improvement? Then, I suppose I am still a culture warrior. Responsible governance without admitting what has happened to Gaza? Detail that, please.

    And, consider: with fantasy there never would have been an Israel. The world runs on ideas as well as material.

  14. straw man. i’m not suggesting that Gazans don’t objectively deserve our help. but whether they deserve it, or whether israel wants US intervention, has nothing to do with whether Obama will judge that intervention to be of US interest.

    the ‘war on terror’ as an abstract concept is itself based on premises established by President Bush. the US’s primary foreign policy interests lie in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Hamas has nothing to do with these places except insofar as it is a subsidiary of Iran — and the US can deal with Iran directly (perhaps.) Unless you can show me how an Israeli/Palestinian agreement concretely affects US relations to these other countries, I stand by my sense that Obama will be looking elsewhere.

  15. Max, I think you define Realpolitik somewhat shortly. Gaza festers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as among “radicals” in the states you list. Both Egypt and the Saudi Arabia seem to fear the populist support engendered by Hamas. While one can call these states stable, the repression has bred many who have entered the very groups the US must continue to fight.
    Frankly, I think Obama will be rather far sighted on this. Not to say miraculous. I hope for open economic boarders with a rather draconian surveillance. Symbols are important. Gaza spills over into many countries through symbolism. All the countries save Iran you list can experience a shift if Gaza is opened somewhat. I doubt a full Israeli/Palestinian agreement, but hazard a borkered opening of the economic boarder.

    Actually, I think you would be more likely right absent the last month. Israel is forcing an American response. Part of the Bush legacy is a decication of symbolism.

    As to the war on terror, it is real for the American politic still sees it as real. Obama is indeed pragmatic. He has to fight that war, and knows, I hope, social weapons will be necessary.

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