Kohan v. Christiansen: Obama, Settlements, & Middle East Peace

Note: This article is part of a debate with PolicyMic Contributing Writer Jeff Christiansen. For an opposing position, see Christiansen's piece here.

In recent months Israel has come under fire as the peace process continues to stall. My PolicyMic colleague Jeff Christiansen argues that a primary key to the holy grail of the elusive two-state solution rests with America’s ability to place heavy pressure on Israel to curb its settlement activity. This strategy sounds seemingly reasonable on paper – coerce Israel into ceasing disruptive settlement growth in order to achieve peace.

The issue with this train of thought is that it does not take into account the danger to American interests of disassociating itself from Israel’s security, and ignores the precarious political situation that Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu must balance in order to achieve a final agreement.

Firstly, Christiansen cites a litany of past American diplomats expressing settlements as the primary impediment to peace and explains how the first Bush Administration successfully threatened to withdraw aid to coerce Israeli compliance on the issue. However, the aid that was in dispute then was economic aid intended to assist Israel in absorbing a wave of Jewish Russian immigration to Israel directly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The U.S. and Israel have since phased out all bilateral economic support.

The aid package that Christiansen is implying should be made contingent to progress on settlements is in fact military and security aid that is paramount to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East. Not a single American administration has ever put preconditions on Israel’s security – and for good reason. This military assistance serves as the cornerstone of deterrence against war between Israel and Arab governments as well as Islamic fundamentalists, and acts as a pillar of stability in the region. It is this military aid – designed to demonstrate to Arab and Islamic regimes that Israel cannot be defeated militarily and that only a diplomatic solution is viable – that led to the conditions that spurred peace agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors Egypt and Jordan. Christiansen ignores the deleterious consequences to American interests of disassociation from Israel’s security over settlements, which would not only debilitate deterrence but also be a tremendous success for Islamists such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, who would spin the schism as a tactical victory and provide momentum for their anti-American cause. 

Secondly, Christiansen dismisses Netanyahu’s domestic political concerns as a minor American interest when formulating a strategy on the peace process. However, such an outlook completely disregards how the contours of Israeli politics directly affect Netanyahu’s capabilities to make immediate concessions that stress his coalition while preserving enough political capital to convince the same parties into accepting a final negotiated agreement. If Netanyahu were to unilaterally declare another settlement freeze that included East Jerusalem his government would likely collapse given the refusal of Israel’s center-left party Kadima to join the coalition. Given the Israeli electorate’s vexation with what is perceived as intransigent Palestinian preconditions, and the public's distrust of the combination of Israel's left and the Obama administration to deliver a deal that addresses the full gamut of the country’s security concerns, the electorate would likely swing even further to the right and empower reactionary parties such as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu that are completely exasperated with the peace process. This is why American administrations have always been sensitive to the Israeli political landscape, and exactly why calls for Israel to make more unilateral concessions are shortsighted in their vision and can produce the exact opposite effect that they intend.

Ultimately the strategy of coercing Israel without maneuvering the Arab states to reach out to Israel in return is feckless and jeopardizes American interests in the region. Pragmatic proponents of peace understand that settlements must be tackled in a context that addresses the full gamut of issues that have to be resolved to reach a final agreement – and that the unilateral approach, as illustrated by the contemporary stalemate, is simply nonsensical.

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