Geopolitical decisions are never easy. There’s what’s right – the decent thing to do – and there’s what’s best for the nation – alliances of convenience and all the rest – realpolitik as it’s called. And there are domestic considerations. Do the right thing, or do the sadly necessary thing, and someone is going to be angry and never vote for you ever again. Then you won’t matter at all. Twenty years ago, while the World Trade Center and a big chunk of the Pentagon were still smoldering, Peter Grier looked back on one particular geopolitical decision:
In later years, his daughter Margaret would say it was the most difficult decision Harry Truman ever faced as president. Should he support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, or shouldn’t he?
His advisers were split. Clark Clifford – Truman’s debonair legal counsel – fervently believed he should. The Jews deserved a sanctuary after the horror of the Holocaust, Clifford argued. Besides, the new state would likely come to pass whether Truman urged it or not.
Secretary of State George Marshall felt otherwise. The retired general was a towering figure in the capital: Truman himself said “there wasn’t a decoration big enough” to honor Marshall’s leadership during World War II. At a White House meeting on May 12, 1948, Marshall objected to quick US recognition of a Jewish homeland. It would look as if Truman was angling for Jewish votes, he said, and might endanger access to Arab oil. He went so far as to say that if Truman went ahead and recognized the new state, then he, personally, would vote against him in the coming election.
It was an extraordinary rebuke to a sitting chief executive – and it didn’t work. Two days later, Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States announced its recognition of the new nation 11 minutes later.
And that was that. We were all-in. And the Arab world knew it. It’s been an odd balancing act ever since. Grier was concerned that Harry Truman’s quick decision had set in motion something that had led to the September 11 attack that year, and maybe that’s so. But that’s old news. Harry Truman’s quick decision means we will have to take sides in the new war over there. Patrick Kingsley, the New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief, keeps posting the latest agony:
A new front opened in the military showdown between the Israeli Army and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday as a wave of mob violence between Jews and Arabs spread across several Israeli cities, leading to riots and attacks in the streets as rockets and missiles streaked across the sky.
Israel said it assassinated ten senior militants and continued to pound both military and residential areas across the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, while Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, and its allies continued to fire rockets into civilian areas across central and southern Israel.
More than 1,000 rockets had been fired from Gaza by Wednesday night, most of them intercepted by an antimissile defense system, the Israeli military said.
But not all of them were intercepted:
Over 67 Palestinians, including 16 children, have died since the start of the conflict on Monday, Palestinian health officials said. The rockets fired by Hamas and its Islamist ally, Islamic Jihad, killed at least six Israeli civilians, including a 5-year-old boy, and one soldier.
The Israeli hit teams that sneak in and quickly assassinate one top Palestinian leader after another, and then just as quickly disappear, can’t fix this. Israel receives three billion dollars a year in United States military aid – some for their Iron Dome antimissile defense system – and may have to flatten and then occupy Gaza with the rest of what we finance for them. Things are getting out of hand:
An Israeli military official said Wednesday that three infantry brigades were “preparing for a worst-case scenario,” confirming that a ground invasion could follow the bombardment from the air.
But the most unexpected developments occurred on the streets of Israeli cities and towns, as rival Jewish and Arab mobs attacked people, cars, shops, offices and hotels.
One of the most chilling incidents occurred in Bat Yam, a seaside suburb south of Tel Aviv, where dozens of Jewish extremists took turns beating and kicking a man presumed to be an Arab, even as his body lay motionless on the ground.
Another occurred in Acre, a northern coastal town, where an Arab mob beat a Jewish man with sticks and rocks, also leaving him in a critical condition. A third was in nearby Tamra, where an Arab mob nearly stabbed a Jewish man to death.
Israeli officials said they had “locked down” the city of Lod in central Israel, the first time such an action has been taken in decades, and arrested 280 people accused of rioting across the country.
Bombing what’s left of Gaza back to the Stone Age won’t do much about mob violence everywhere else. This is something else:
The sudden turn of events, which in less than two full days has escalated from a localized dispute in Jerusalem to full-scale aerial war over Gaza to widespread civil unrest, shocked Israelis and Palestinians alike, and left some of the country’s most experienced leaders fearing that the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict was heading into new territory.
For years, leaders warned that a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might eventually lead to fighting within the state of Israel itself, said Tzipi Livni, a veteran former cabinet minister and former chief negotiator in peace talks with the Palestinians.
“And this is exactly what is happening now,” she said. “What was maybe under the surface has now exploded, and created a combination that is really horrific.”
“I don’t want to use the words ‘civil war,’” she added. “But this is something that is new, this is unbearable, this is horrific, and I’m very worried.”
But it had to happen:
For weeks, ethnic tensions had been rising in Jerusalem, the center of the conflict. In April, far-right Jews marched through the city center, chanting “Death to Arabs,” and mobs of both Jews and Arabs attacked each other.
Palestinian anger increased as a deadline to expel several families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, approached – a case that quickly became a stand-in for historic expulsions of Palestinians from their land elsewhere in Israel.
The situation finally boiled over after a police raid on one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, on Monday, which the police said was in response to stone-throwing by Palestinian demonstrators.
That response only made things worse, and things were bad enough already:
While the immediate triggers for the Palestinian rioting were the Aqsa mosque, the Sheikh Jarrah case and the Gaza conflict, the riots also gave vent to years of pent-up anger from Israel’s Arab minority, who represent about 20 percent of the population.
They have full citizenship and many have become lawmakers, judges and senior civil servants. But rights advocates say they are nevertheless victims of dozens of discriminatory laws, not least a recent law that downgraded the status of the Arabic language and said that only Jews had the right to determine the nature of the Israeli state.
“The way that we are treated is as though we shouldn’t be here,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian political analyst from Haifa, a northern city in Israel, and a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization. “We are the people who they mistakenly did not ethnically cleanse from this place.”
And now the Israelis are paying the price for that:
In the central city of Lod, the government declared a state of emergency early Wednesday after a synagogue, school and several vehicles were burned by Arab rioters on Monday and Tuesday nights…
In the cities of Or Akiva and Beersheva, Jews stoned the cars of people they believed to be Arab. In Tiberias, they threw rocks at hotels housing Arabs, who hurled objects from their windows in return. Cars were set on fire in several towns. And an Arab mob in Haifa ransacked a Jewish-owned hotel.
“It’s happening as we speak,” the hotel’s owner, Evan Fallenberg, said by phone on Wednesday night. “People are saying this is a rupture that we won’t be able to overcome. I don’t believe that – I know my friendships are lasting ones. But it is going to put everything to the test. We’re headed into something extremely difficult and dangerous, and I don’t know where this is going to end or how.”
Wait. Jared Kushner was supposed to fix all of this once and for all. Donald Trump said he would. Donald Trump said he had. Kushner, the fabulously wealthy young real estate broker, with no diplomatic or government experience at all, would do what no one else had done, ever. He’d end the Israel-Palestinian conflict once and for all. He’d fix Harry Truman’s mistake. No one believed that, but Trump sent Jared, who would come through for him. Middle East Peace! This would be Trump’s amazing triumph.
Max Boot, the former foreign policy advisor to more than a few Republican candidates, somehow prefers reality:
On Sept. 15, 2020, President Donald Trump trumpeted his proudest – and virtually sole – foreign policy achievement: the signing of the Abraham Accords opening formal ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” he said in a White House ceremony. “Together, these agreements will serve as the foundation for a comprehensive peace across the entire region.”
Fast forward eight months and that boast appears even more risible now than it did at the time. The clashes in recent days between Israelis and Palestinians make clear that there is no “peace” and no “new Middle East.” It remains the same blood-soaked mess as ever. The Abraham Accords were nice, but they did nothing to resolve underlying conflicts in Yemen, Syria, Libya – or the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
And they did nothing to resolve this:
Even those of us who are supporters of Israel must admit that the proximate cause of the current flare-up is Israel’s continuing land grab in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – something that Trump did much to encourage with his uncritical and unwavering support for his fellow right-wing populist, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More than 9,200 Israeli homes were built in the West Bank during the Trump years with nary a peep of protest from Washington. Far from trying to curb Israeli expansion, as previous presidents did, Trump unwisely recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights and cut off aid to the Palestinians.
Yes, that was asking for trouble. History matters:
Right-wing Israeli settlers have been trying to evict six more Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem by arguing that the houses belong to Jewish owners who were dispossessed during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Netanyahu has tried to portray this as an ordinary land dispute that the Israeli Supreme Court will adjudicate; a decision was due Monday before the violence spiraled out of control.
But Palestinians rightly point out that the Israeli legal system is biased against them. The law allows Israelis to claim possession of houses they lost in 1948 but does not extend similar rights to Palestinians. Palestinians see the looming evictions as part of an Israeli plan to take such firm possession of East Jerusalem that it can never be the capital of a future Palestinian state.
Again, Trump made the problem worse by seeming to recognize Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem when he moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
Hell, even Harry Truman knew better than that. Every president since Truman had known better than that, until Trump, for good reason:
Palestinians (and also Israeli Arabs) are angry, and predictably their protests have flared into clashes with Israeli police. Israeli officers even entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam, firing rubber bullets and throwing stun grenades while battling Palestinian youths throwing rocks at them.
This gave Hamas the perfect excuse to jump into the fray under the guise of defending Palestinian rights in Jerusalem. But however legitimate the Palestinian grievances, nothing justifies the indiscriminate rocketing of civilians. This is a war crime, and Israel is fully justified in striking back as long as it makes every effort to minimize collateral damage.
Israel won’t make that effort. They’re angry too. Everyone is angry, and Boot sees no end to this:
It has long been obvious that a two-state solution is the only way out of this quagmire. But of the three major players – Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Israel – none has a leader willing to make the slightest sacrifice for peace.
Hamas, despite cosmetic revisions to its charter in 2017, remains committed to the eradication of Israel. Mahmoud Abbas, the 85-year-old president of the Palestinian Authority, is willing to cooperate with Israel – but unwilling to sign a final settlement that would give up Palestinian claims such as the “right to return.” He has no legitimacy to do so in any case, because he is 16 years into a four-year term. He is so unpopular that he just postponed the first Palestinian elections since 2006, probably because he didn’t want to see gains by his rivals – including Hamas.
And then there is Netanyahu:
He is now facing trial on corruption charges and desperately clinging to office as a caretaker prime minister. He has not been able to win a majority in four elections held in less than two years, but he stubbornly refuses to step down. The new battle with the Palestinians may be a godsend for him because it has delayed negotiations between Arab members of the Knesset and his rivals Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett to form a government.
But that really doesn’t help anyone else much at all. It doesn’t help Biden either:
Faced with this never-ending conflict, the best that the Biden administration can do is to try to lower the temperature and broker a cease-fire. The odds of successful peace talks remain remote.
But at least President Biden won’t exacerbate the conflict as Trump did while foolishly patting himself on the back for bringing peace to the region.
That’s cold comfort. Biden is stuck with this mess. The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan and John Hudson explain the mess:
The worst violence in years between the Israeli military and the Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip poses the first major foreign policy challenge for President Biden, while exposing a growing divide among Democrats over criticism of Israel and giving Republicans an opening to criticize the president’s approach.
The days of deadly cross-border rocket attacks and airstrikes approached all-out war on Wednesday amid international calls for calm and a flurry of diplomatic efforts from Washington. The White House said U.S. officials have made more than 25 calls to Israeli, Palestinian and regional Arab leaders in the past few days, as well as other diplomatic outreach.
That’s not working and doubly frustrating:
The effort risks drawing the United States into just the kind of Middle East morass that Biden hoped to avoid. His foreign policy strategy is premised on a shift toward confronting China and away from an emphasis on the Middle East and Europe.
Yeah, well, forget that:
Biden said Wednesday that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and expressed optimism that the fighting would end quickly.
“My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later,” he said at the White House. “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”
Biden refrained from criticizing Israeli actions, but a White House account of their conversation said he had addressed the unrest in Jerusalem.
“He shared his conviction that Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith from around the world, must be a place of peace,” the White House statement said.
He’s letting Netanyahu down easy. He’s not Trump. But he’s also oddly powerless himself:
Biden briefed Netanyahu on U.S. diplomatic efforts with several countries including Egypt, Jordan and Qatar, the statement said. Those nations maintain ties to Hamas and can be go-betweens. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist group and avoids direct contact.
But nothing is that simple anymore:
Israel maintains a deep bench of staunch defenders in the Democratic leadership, including Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, who have all emphasized Israel’s right to defend itself.
“The barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas are terrorism and no country should have to tolerate this kind of threat against its population. These brazen acts threaten the safety & security of Israelis & Palestinians,” Menendez tweeted Tuesday.
But a new crop of younger lawmakers willing to challenge the party’s pro-Israel orthodoxy has put pressure on the Biden administration and congressional leaders amid polling showing growing skepticism among Democrats about Israeli actions.
Things are changing. This time things are different:
“We cannot just condemn rockets fired by Hamas and ignore Israel’s state-sanctioned police violence against Palestinians – including unlawful evictions, violent attacks on protestors & the murder of Palestinian children,” Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) tweeted. “U.S. aid should not be funding this violence.”
His message was retweeted by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), who along with Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has spotlighted Israeli aggression in the conflict in ways that go beyond conventional Democratic statements blaming both sides.
“We stand in solidarity with the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem. Israeli forces are forcing families from their homes during Ramadan and inflicting violence,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a tweet on Saturday, referring to a neighborhood where a Jewish settler group is seeking to evict Arab families.
This really is new:
“In the 40-odd years I’ve been working on these issues full time, I’ve never seen this level of support for Palestinian rights and challenging the status quo,” said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute, speaking of grass-roots Democratic support for the Palestinians. “This was an issue the Biden administration hoped to avoid. Now they can’t avoid it.”
The change in atmosphere on the issue is also the result of the last election cycle and the exit of long-serving pro-Israel members.
The former top Democrat of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot L. Engel, was unseated last year by a more liberal candidate, Jamaal Bowman, replacing a reflexive pro-Israel lawmaker with a former principal from the Bronx with fewer reservations about putting a spotlight on alleged atrocities carried out by Israeli forces.
While condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks, Bowman has criticized Israel’s evictions of Palestinians and retaliatory airstrikes.
“Violently evicting families from their homes in which generations have lived is not an act of peace. A show of strong force during prayer is not an act of peace. Destroying holy sites is not an act of peace,” Bowman said in a statement. “Hamas rocket attacks are not an act of peace. Israeli government airstrikes are not an act of peace.”
So, do the right thing, not the sadly necessary thing:
A key source of frustration for some Democrats is the Biden administration’s sluggish pace in overturning several signature policies of the Trump era favored by pro-Israel conservatives. On the campaign trail, Biden promised to reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de facto embassy to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. That mission was absorbed into the U.S. Embassy to Israel under Trump’s orders.
Trump also oversaw the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington. Despite Biden’s promise to reopen the offices, both remain closed, and the president has yet to nominate an ambassador to Israel, which critics said put Washington at a disadvantage in managing the escalating conflict.
Be fair to both sides! Sure, and walk into a political trap:
Republicans, who have become an increasingly influential part of American political support for Israel, leaped to defend Israel and denounce Democrats as falling short.
“The Republican Party stands with Israel, a nation that has every right to defend itself against violence and the barrage of rockets from Hamas,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said in a statement:
“These attacks prove that Biden’s weak leadership is reversing the historic progress the Trump administration made towards peace in the region and has signaled to known terrorist organizations, like Hamas, that they can get away with attacking our nation’s strongest ally in the Middle East. It is vital that the United States stand with Israel and the Jewish community.”
Nikki Haley, a former U.N. ambassador under Trump and a potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate, went further.
“Hamas has watched Biden downgrade our relationship with Israel and then restore funding to the PA and the UN’s most corrupt agency without reform,” Haley tweeted, referring to the Palestinian Authority and the U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians.
“Now, they are testing him. While terrorist rockets rain down on Israeli civilians, Biden is nowhere to be found,” Haley wrote.
They have staked out their side here. There is only one side – Israel. Screw the Palestinians. They should all die? Biden doesn’t want to go there:
The State Department account of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s conversation with Netanyahu was carefully worded to note both a traditional offer of support to Israel and a measure of U.S. backing for Palestinians.
“The Secretary emphasized the need for Israelis and Palestinians to be able to live in safety and security, as well as enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy,” the statement said.
Blinken faced repeated questions from reporters on Wednesday about what he would do differently in light of both sides ignoring his calls for a de-escalation.
As the death toll climbs, Blinken said the United States would continue to do what it has been doing, “which is to be engaged across the board.”
It seems that the idea is to be fair to both sides now. But do the right thing, or do the sadly necessary thing, and someone is going to be angry. Still, someone is always angry. Fine. Let them be angry. Do the right thing. Be fair to both sides – not that it matters now. No one can fix this.