Moving to Iran Containment? /The US and Israeli settlements

Apr 8, 2010 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

April 8, 2010
Number 04/010 #01

Readers may have seen an important article over the weekend from Greg Sheridan of the Australian alleging that the US Administration is moving away from trying to stop a nuclear Iran toward containing Iran once nuclear capabilities are achieved (and if you haven’t, I strongly urge you to have a look). This Update contains some additional discussion of this possibility.

First up is an editorial from the Jerusalem Post, which is strongly critical of the idea that containment can be an effective solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. Like Sheridan, it argues that there are signs that this may be the direction in which the US Administration is headed, and reminds readers that not only is a nuclear threat an existential threat to Israel, but it is not at all likely to result in a stable situation like the Cold War. It argues that the Iranians see themselves as heading a resurgent global movement, and a better analogy is Germany’s Rhineland re-occupation in 1936, which, when tolerated, vastly energised aggression. For the rest of the editorial’s arguments, CLICK HERE. Other relevant recent editorials on Iran policy come from the Wall Street Journal, which also takes a dim view of the apparent move toward containment, and the Boston Globe, which argues that sanctions may still work if deployed quickly.

Next up is American foreign policy expert Danielle Pletka, who argues that the push for UN sanctions by the Obama Administration is failing, but Washington is refusing to admit this. She says that China and other UN Security Council members are refusing to discuss significant sanctions, ad hoc sanctions outside the UN appear to be falling by the wayside, and yet Administration officials will not discuss what their plan B is. She warns that a drift to war looks a real possibility if things continue in the present vein. For her full argument, CLICK HERE. Pletka was also involved in a recent forum on Iran policy with fellow foreign policy specialists Elliot Abram and Ray Takeyh, which is summarised here. A more optimistic view comes from another expert analyst, Raymond Tantor, who argues that sanctions directed toward regime change can work.

Finally, on a different topic, veteran Washington insider Steve Rosen looks at the history of past US Administrations’ policies on settlements and East Jerusalem, and argues that they demonstrate why the current Administration’s confrontational approach has been a mistake. He argues that the approach taken by the Obama Administration would likely have prevented the Oslo accords and Oslo II accords when Rabin was Israeli PM, the Hebron and Wye River agreements under Netanyahu, the Camp David and Taba summits under Barak, and the Gaza withdrawal under Sharon. He points out that all these governments were involved in construction in Jerusalem of the sort that Obama now demands end, resulting in the creation of a new Palestinian pre-condition for negotiations which was not present in any of the previous agreements and peace efforts. For this important look at past US-Israeli arrangements on this issue, CLICK HERE. More criticism of the US Administration’s approach comes from former US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

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Editorial: No to containment

JERUSALEM POST, 30/03/2010 23:17

Indications are beginning to multiply that the Obama administration’s decision to drastically ratchet up pressure on Israel over building in east Jerusalem might be tied to the US’s de facto policy of avoiding a military confrontation with Teheran.

Although US officials publicly deny this, recent weeks have seen growing signs that the United States is reconciling itself to a nuclear Iran.

The idea of “containment” – based on the conception that what worked during the Cold War with the USSR and China will work with the mullahs now – seems to be marginalizing any last prospect of a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities if, or rather when, the current effort at engagement and sanctions is recognized as having failed. The idea seems to be that when a nuclear Iran appears, it will be deterred from directly utilizing its nuclear capability or exporting it to the likes of Hizbullah and Hamas.

In a recent news analysis, New York Times reporter David Sanger quoted extensively from the latest cover story of Foreign Policy, entitled “After Iran Gets the Bomb,” and stated flatly that “the administration is deep into containment now – though it insists its increases in defensive power in the Gulf are meant to deter a conventional attack by Iran.”

And while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee last week, said no fewer than four times in quick succession that a nuclear-armed Iran would be “unacceptable,” she also refrained from directly mentioning the possibility of military intervention.

Nor did revelations this week that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has apparently ordered work to begin soon on two new nuclear plants, to be built inside mountains to protect them from attack, elicit a more aggressive US response.

One of the leading proponents of “containment” is Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and an enthusiastic supporter of Obama who has warned against the fallout from a military strike on Iran.

Against this backdrop, the Obama administration’s deliberately overblown reaction to the expansion of a haredi neighborhood in east Jerusalem can be interpreted as a warning that Israel no longer enjoys Washington’s unconditional support in all spheres. As Stephen Hayes put it in a recent piece in the Weekly Standard, “You think we overreacted to a housing spat in Jerusalem? Try bombing Iran.”

Indeed, Brzezinski, who worked on a policy paper on Iran with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates back in 2004 at the Council of Foreign Relations, said in an interview with The Beast in 2009 that US armed forced should shoot down Israeli fighter planes if they bucked US orders and attacked Iranian nuclear facilities.

WITHIN THE framework of the US’s emerging strategy of containment, an Israel pushing for military intervention is a liability. An Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities without US backing is almost out of the question. Israel would need US permission to overfly Iraq, to refuel and to repair IAF fighter planes in regional US army bases. Even if Israel were to decide it was compelled to act and somehow manage without technical aid from the US, it is now unclear whether the US would back Israel in the UN Security Council and beyond amid the inevitably condemnatory diplomatic, economic and military aftermath.

Yet Israel must continue to resist containment. A nuclear Iran does not merely remake the balance of power in the Middle East and embolden the Islamists in their rapacious struggle against the West; it is an existential threat to Israel.

Even if one believes that Teheran is sufficiently “pragmatic” not to strike directly at the Jewish state whose elimination it overtly seeks, no one can guarantee that fundamentalist Teheran would not slip a crude bomb or material to Hamas, Hizbullah or an al-Qaida-inspired terror network.

The appeasement of anti-Semitic, anti-Western mullahs, who see themselves in the ascendant and can claim vast millions of supporters globally, cannot be compared to the Cold War standoff with aging, ideologically bankrupt Soviet apparatchiks. The present confrontation more closely resembles Hitler’s decision in 1936 to send German troops into the Rhineland – belligerently violating the Versailles Treaty – while France and Britain stood by passively.

As the subway bombings in Russia illustrate yet again, radical Islam is far from losing momentum, and it threatens freedom everywhere – not only in Jerusalem, but in Moscow and in Washington. “Containment” won’t cut it.


Iran Sanctions Are Failing. What’s Next?


Wall Street Journal, March 31, 2010

Has the U.S. abandoned plans to target the Iranian regime’s access to banking and credit and to isolate Iranian air and shipping transport? While recent reports to that effect have been strenuously denied by the administration, it has become clear that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise of “crippling sanctions” and President Barack Obama’s “aggressive” penalties are little more than talk. The administration simply cannot persuade a critical mass of nations to join with it.

At this juncture, there are blunt questions that need to be asked. Can sanctions even work? Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Is military action inevitable? But first, some foreign policy forensics are in order.

Candidate Obama told us engagement would be his byword, and to give him credit, he proffered a generous, open hand to Tehran. If his hand remained outstretched a little too long, he was secure in the knowledge that the world rarely criticizes an American president who is willing to make sacrifices for peace (especially if those sacrifices are measured in terms of American national security). But Mr. Obama was more than committed to dialogue with Iran: He was unwilling to take no for an answer.

How else to explain Mr. Obama’s lack of interest in the Iranian people’s democratic protests against the regime. Or his seeming indifference to Tehran’s failure to meet repeated international deadlines to respond to an offer endorsed by all five permanent U.N. Security Council members (and Germany) to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia, receiving back enriched fuel rods that do not lend themselves to weapons production. One might have hoped the administration was using that time to build international consensus for a plan B. But apparently that’s not the case.

After months of begging, China will agree only to discuss the possibility of a fourth U.N. Security Council resolution punishing Tehran’s noncompliance with its nonproliferation commitments. But along with Russia, it has already ruled out any measures to target the regime or the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Even nonpermanent U.N. Security Council members Japan, Brazil and Turkey have reportedly rebuffed the administration requests to support tougher sanctions.

Meanwhile, Tehran continues to work toward a nuclear weapon, with the International Atomic Energy Agency now looking for two new nuclear sites in the Islamic Republic. Any talk of a tidal wave of ad hoc sanctions among various like-minded Western nations has fallen by the wayside. True, companies like Royal Dutch Shell, major oil trader Vitol and others have decided to take a pass on new deals with Iran. Others are less cautious.

In the past few weeks, among other reported business with Iran, Turkey announced it was mulling a $5.5 billion investment in Iran’s natural-gas sector. Iran and Pakistan signed a deal paving the way for the construction of a major pipeline. And a unit of China National Petroleum inked a $143 million contract with Iran’s state-run North Drilling Company to deliver equipment for NDC’s Persian Gulf oil fields.

Sanctions increasingly appear to be a fading hope. Thus we are left with a stark alternative: Either Iran gets a nuclear weapon and we manage the risk, or someone acts to eliminate the threat.

Unofficial Washington has long been discussing options for containment of a nuclear Iran. Setting aside the viability of containment (I have my doubts), surely these challenges must be apparent to some on the Obama team. But you’d never know it from administration officials, who continue to privately profess faith in the (weak) sanctions route. Badgered by those in the region most directly menaced by a nuclear Iran, administration officials have reportedly refused to engage in discussion of possible next steps.

The implications of this ostrich-like behavior are grave. Some Gulf states (including, some say, Qatar, which hosts American forces and equipment) have begun to openly propitiate the Tehran regime, anticipating its regional dominance once it is armed with nuclear weapons. Others, not reassured by Clinton drop-bys and ineffectual back-patting, have begun to explore their own nuclear option. Repeated rumors that Saudi Arabia is negotiating to buy an off-the-shelf Pakistani nuclear weapon should not be ignored.

What of Israel? The mess of U.S.-Israel relations has ironically only bolstered the fears of Arab governments that the current U.S. administration is a feckless ally. If the U.S. won’t stand by Israel, by whom will it stand? Conversely, our adversaries view both the distancing from Israel and the debacle of Iran policy as evidence of American retreat. All the ingredients of a regional powder keg are in place.

Finally, there is the military option. Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu left Washington last week befuddled by Mr. Obama’s intentions on Iran. Should Israel decide to attack Iran, the shock waves will not leave the U.S. unscathed. Of course, Mr. Obama could decide that we must take action. But no one, Iran included, believes he will take action.

And so, as the failure of Mr. Obama’s Iran policy becomes manifest to all but the president, we drift toward war. The only questions remaining, one Washington politico tells me, are who starts it, and how it ends.

Ms. Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.


Obama’s Foolish Settlements Ultimatum

History shows that progress toward Middle East peace happens when U.S. presidents use finesse, not unreasonable demands, to move negotiations forward.


Foreign Policy, APRIL 1, 2010

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to confront Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Israeli construction activity in East Jerusalem has been greeted by a hail of praise, especially from people impatient to proceed with peace negotiations with the Palestinians. The belief seems to be that meeting this issue head-on will accelerate progress toward an agreement ending a conflict that has festered for generations. The historical record suggests a different conclusion.

The assumption that a faceoff over construction in Jerusalem will advance negotiations has not been subjected to much scrutiny. But the last two decades show that progress has occurred not when this issue was put first, but when it was finessed and left for the final status negotiations on Jerusalem.

Consider this: If, 17 years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton or Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat had insisted that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, before Arafat would sit down with Rabin, there would have been no Oslo agreements.  By Rabin’s own account, in comments before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, he had to fudge the issue.

“I explained to the president of the United States,” he said,”that I wouldn’t forbid Jews from building privately in the area of Judea and Samaria … I am sorry that within united Jerusalem construction is not more massive.”

The same year as the famous handshake on the White House lawn, 1993, the Rabin government completed the construction of more than 6,000 units in the Pisgat Zeev neighborhood of East Jerusalem, out of a total of 13,000 units that were in various stages of completion in areas of the city that had been outside Israeli lines before 1967.

So Arafat did sit down with Rabin, even while Israel’s construction in Jerusalem continued. And, on Sept. 13, 1993, the Oslo peace accord was signed — by the same Mahmoud Abbas who refuses to sit down today. And on October 14, 1994, Rabin, who built homes for Jews in East Jerusalem, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Altogether, Israel completed 30,000 dwelling units in the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem in the four years of Rabin’s government. Even the Jan. 9, 1995, announcement of a plan to build 15,000 additional apartments in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the 1967 borders (especially Pisgat Zeev, Neve Yaacov, Gilo, and Har Homa) did not stop negotiations, which resulted in the Oslo II accord of September 28, 1995. Israeli construction continued while Abbas and Rabin signed an historic accord.

And what was the American policy toward Rabin’s construction of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem? Mild annoyance.

On Jan. 3, 1995, the State Department spokesman said mildly, in response to the Rabin government’s announcement of expanded construction, “The parties themselves … have to judge whether it presents any kind of a problem in their own dialogue. The important thing is to continue to meet.” The spokesman added on Jan. 10, 1995, “We admit that settlements are a problem, but we … enjoin the parties to deal with these issues in their negotiations.”

Clinton’s Middle East peace advisor, Martin Indyk, told the U.S. Senate on Feb. 2, 1995, that Rabin’s government had recently “given approval for something like 4,000 to 5,000 new housing units to go up in settlements around the Jerusalem area.” But, he said, Clinton had decided to stay out of it. “To take action now that would in one way or another … would be very explosive in the negotiations, and frankly, would put us out of business as a facilitator of those negotiations.” Had Clinton taken Obama’s approach, it might well have exploded the negotiations and brought the Oslo process to a halt.

Nor was this example of construction in Jerusalem while diplomacy made progress an isolated exception. Two years after Oslo II, in January 1997, Abbas and Arafat sat down with another Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu, to sign the Hebron Protocol, which provided for the withdrawal of the Israeli armed forces from 80 percent of the very sensitive area of Hebron in the West Bank. Arafat and Abbas had no illusions that Netanyahu intended to freeze Israeli construction in East Jerusalem. In fact, Netanyahu had announced that he would proceed with the building of Har Homa, a controversial Israeli suburb conceived by Rabin. Nor, another 18 months later, did the Palestinians’ fierce objections to Har Homa stop them from joining the Wye Plantation negotiations from October 15-23, 1998. These talks led to an agreement known as the Wye River Memorandum, in which Netanyahu, under considerable pressure from President Clinton, agreed to pull the Israel Defense Forces out of an additional 13 percent of the West Bank. This move was fiercely opposed by Netanyahu’s right flank, and it led to his downfall in January 1999 when the hard-liners in his coalition defected.

Had Clinton demanded Netanyahu freeze construction in Jerusalem and Arafat made it a precondition for negotiations, neither the Hebron nor Wye agreements would have been signed.

The Labor government that was elected in the wake of Netanyahu’s ouster continued the pattern of building in Jerusalem while moving forward in negotiations with the Palestinians. At the Camp David Summit (July 11-25, 2000), then Prime Minister Ehud Barak went past Israel’s past “red lines” and the Palestinians most of the West Bank and a capital in Jerusalem, along with land swaps. But, at the same time that he was taking these unprecedented steps, Barak was accelerating the construction of Har Homa and other Jerusalem communities across the pre-1967 line. While the talks accelerated, Barak also moved ahead with the Ras al-Amud neighborhood on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. President Clinton said he ” would have preferred that this decision was not taken.” But Clinton added that the United States “cannot prevent Israel from building in Har-Homa.” Haim Ramon, Rabin’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, said “I would like to make it clear that the government has no intention of stopping the building at Har Homa.”

Here again, had Clinton taken Obama’s position and issued an ultimatum demanding that all construction in Jerusalem stop, and had Arafat made that American demand a precondition to begin negotiations, the Camp David Summit of 2000 and the Taba talks in January 2001 would not have occurred.

The next Israeli government, headed by retired general Ariel Sharon, did not seek any breakthroughs in negotiations with the Palestinians. But Sharon ordered the most dramatic territorial concession in Israel’s history since 1967: the withdrawal of all Israeli soldiers from every square inch of Gaza along with the abandonment of 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank, in the “unilateral disengagement” of August-December 2005. Sharon pulled 8,000 Israeli settlers from their homes against fierce opposition from his right flank.

President George W. Bush played a key role in making Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza possible by softening U.S. policy on the settlement issue. To offset the concession that Sharon was making, and counter opposition to it from Israel’s right, he wrote a letter to Sharon on April 14, 2004, acknowledging that, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949. … It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.” One implication of the letter was that the United States would treat Israeli construction in communities that all parties knew will remain part of Israel in any future two-state agreement, like the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem, differently from settlement activity on controversial areas in the interior of the West Bank.

Elliott Abrams, the White House advisor who negotiated the Bush administration’s compromises on the natural growth of settlement, explained the significance of the step Bush took last June in the Wall Street Journal: “There were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. … The prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation … the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza. … There was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to … confront his former allies on Israel’s right by abandoning the ‘Greater Israel’ position. … He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze.”

There were expressions of unhappiness by Palestinian leaders and European diplomats about the Bush policy of giving a green light to limited construction in Jerusalem and certain settlement blocs. But the Bush administration defended it as a realistic policy that moved the peace process forward.

Four months after the disengagement from Gaza, on Jan. 4, 2006, Sharon went into a coma. His deputy, Ehud Olmert, became prime minister. Olmert sought a resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians. Following the Annapolis Summit in November 2007, Abbas, who had taken over as president of the Palestinian Authority and head of the PLO after Arafat’s death in November 2004, agreed to begin intensive negotiations with Olmert. While Abbas expressed his unhappiness with continued Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the settlement blocs, he did not make cancelation of these projects a precondition for talks. In fact, Olmert said, “It was clear from day one to Abbas … that construction would continue in population concentrations — the areas mentioned in Bush’s 2004 letter. … Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Zeev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem … areas [that] will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement.”

These negotiations produced significant results: on Sept. 16, 2008, Olmert offered Abbas 93 percent of the West Bank, partition of Jerusalem, and a land swap. Abbas’s deputy Saeb Erekat boasted to a Jordanian newspaper that he and Abbas had achieved considerable progress with the Olmert government between the November 2007 Annapolis talks and the end of 2008 in as many as 288 negotiation sessions by 12 committees — all while Israeli construction continued.

The record is clear and consistent: The United States has never liked Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, and frequently stated that it complicated the peace process. But until Obama, no U.S. president had made its cancelation a precondition for negotiations, and until Obama, Palestinian leaders including Abbas did not make it a precondition either. For 19 years — from the Madrid conference of October 1991 through the Olmert/Abbas negotiations that ended in 2008, negotiations moved forward while Jerusalem construction continued. Madrid, Oslo I, Oslo II, the Hebron Protocol, the Wye River Memorandum, Camp David, Taba, the disengagement from Gaza, and the Olmert offer to Abbas — all these events over the course of two decades were made possible by a continuing agreement to disagree about Israeli construction of Jewish homes in Jewish neighborhoods outside the pre-1967 line in East Jerusalem.

Today, for the first time in 19 years, we have an administration unable to produce Israeli-Palestinian negotiations . Abbas is following Obama’s lead in demanding an unprecedented precondition that Israel cannot satisfy. This is the same Abbas who negotiated with seven previous Israeli prime ministers — Shamir, Rabin, Peres, Netanyahu (in his first term), Barak, Sharon, and Olmert, without the precondition that he now demands of Netanyahu. We have a crisis. Netanyahu is doing something that every past Israeli prime minister of the left and right has done, but Obama is doing something that past American leaders considered unwise. It is the U.S. behaviour that has changed.

At this moment, Obama’s decision to confront Netanyahu about construction in Jerusalem wins wide praise. Whether Obama’s policy will still look good in six months, when people realize he has mired the negotiations in quicksand, remains to be seen.

Obama would do better to take the advice of his own Mideast envoy, George Mitchell, who wisely told PBS host Charlie Rose, “For the Israelis, what they’re building in is in part of Israel. Now, the others don’t see it that way.  So you have these widely divergent perspectives on the subject. Our view is, let’s get into negotiations, let’s deal with the issues and come up with a solution to all of them including Jerusalem. … The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in or construction in East Jerusalem. … There are disputed legal issues. … And we could spend the next 14 years arguing over disputed legal issues or we can try to get a negotiation to resolve them in a manner that meets the aspirations of both societies.”

Steven J. Rosen served for 23 years as foreign-policy director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and was a defendant in the recently dismissed AIPAC case. He is now director of the Washington Project at the Middle East Forum.



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