America as Obstacle

Daniel Levy is one of the most respected Israeli peace advocates in the United States. Best known for his role as a senior policy adviser to former Israeli Minister of Justice Yossi Beilin, Levy was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Taba Summit with the Palestinians in January 2001, and of the negotiating team for the “Oslo 2” Agreement from May to September 1995, under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

The former Director of Policy and International Efforts at Heskem, the Israeli headquarters of the joint non-governmental Israeli-Palestinian Geneva Initiative, Levy was the lead Israeli drafter of the legendary Geneva Accord. Today, he is a member of American Jewish peace organization J Street‘s Advisory Council, and a favorite target of right wing attacks.

With such a distinguished career, Levy’s candor, and his willingness to consider new approaches to Mideast peacemaking makes him a breath of fresh air. I met with him on April 21 in Washington, DC to discuss the bleak state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs and what hope one may find for the future.

Mitchell Plitnick: When I spoke to him about a week ago, Aaron Miller said that the Palestinian effort to get a UN General Assembly resolution recognizing their statehood was “dumb.” What do you think of this effort?

Daniel Levy: As part of a strategy of pursuing two states, that gets beyond the failed effort that is dependent on good faith negotiations with Israel mediated by a United States, it has merit; but only as part of such a strategy.

Palestinians who are pursuing UN recognition have probably not developed the other parts of that strategy. So the vote won’t make a decisive difference. But, even as a very incomplete and partial strategy, it can bring some benefit. It certainly makes more sense than carrying on with the same failed path. If you’re an Israeli, or a sympathizer with Israel who supports a two-state solution, this should be a welcome development.

I think it’s interesting to see at least some of what constitutes the coalition of those opposed to the Palestinians’ UN move. It’s a coalition of those who reject two states, who don’t want a viable two-state dispensation, whether it’s Ali Abunimah coming from a Palestinian rights-based (rather than state-based) approach, or a panoply of actors in Israel who, even if some articulate some kind of support for a two-state solution, are in practice opposed to it and support entrenching the occupation.

Mitchell Plitnick: The United States recently postponed an April 15 meeting of the Quartet where, it was rumored, the European Union was going to propose putting forth a proposal for a peace agreement to restart negotiations. Do you think the EU is trying to take a more active role in brokering an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, perhaps mounting a challenge to the United States’ exclusive stewardship of the Israel-Palestine conflict?

Daniel Levy: I don’t think we’re in a place where the EU is going to take the lead on this issue. Nor will its member states, certainly not in an overtly confrontational way. The EU and the E3 (Great Britain, France and Germany) have articulated a set of parameters. Look at the statement of Great Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations after the US veto of the Security Council resolution calling on Israel to halt all settlement activity. On behalf of Great Britain, France and Germany, he set out those parameters. They have since been repeated by other officials. The EU and E3 would like to see the Quartet articulate that set of parameters.

[Note: The parameters are borders based on those that existed before the Six-Day War in 1967 with equivalent land swaps as may be agreed between the parties; Security arrangements that, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over; and, for Israelis, which protect their security, prevent the resurgence of terrorism and deal effectively with new and emerging threats; A just, fair and agreed solution to the Palestinian refugee question; and a plan to share Jerusalem as the capital of both Israel and Palestine].

I’m not sure those parameters are about resuming negotiations. I think they’re mainly about drawing a line in the sand in terms of what is and is not reasonable to include in a visioning of two states, thereby creating a more realistic conversation and a moment of truth, especially in Israel. This is in no small measure a response to a frustration, almost desperation, with such a seemingly unreasonable Israeli interlocutor, which many would probably identify as being distinct to the Netanyahu-Lieberman government, but may well go much deeper than that.

I think there’s a difference between the EU (together with maybe the UN and Russia as well) and the US both in terms of content and intentionality. The EU is probably thinking, “Can this be helpful and constructive as an input” into the Israeli debate I mentioned. The US is looking at this more from the perspective of “How do we find a paper formula which helps get us back to negotiations, helps us avoid a September vote at the UN and is not disruptive to our domestic politics, having just launched a presidential re-election campaign?” Those produce two different sets of parameters in terms of content. Maybe not totally incompatible, but different in terms of emphasis.

Mitchell Plitnick: What are the limits to US involvement?

Daniel Levy: We need to acknowledge that American domestic politics will not allow the US to lead on this issue in a way that is conducive to advancing a breakthrough. Most people would look at this as being patently obvious, this administration included. US leaders are sufficiently boxed in politically and lack maneuverability to carry the peace process forward. If that is the case, for anyone caring about Israel’s future and the Palestinians, it is worth considering what would get us out of the impasse, whether it is the UN or Quartet playing a more active role.

Now, when you read President Obama’s Libya speech, one might take from it that there would be a logic in the Americans seeing the Israel-Palestine conflict dealt with more by the United Nations than by the US. From the point of view of American strategic interests, one might also draw the conclusion that the US cannot politically carry this burden, that while this conflict is hugely consequential for the United States, it would be better for the US to be a little less in control of it. But that is a counterintuitive notion for any power, certainly for the United States. Leaving this to others gets to the very heart of what the traditional pro-Israel community defines as red lines, precisely because no other entity will treat Israel as favorably as America will. “Favorably,” to the extent of becoming irresponsibly indulgent.

The question for everyone is will a changing Middle East change the equation. Can the US allow such a defining issue as Israel-Palestine to continue to be so mismanaged with such unhelpful consequences to American interests?

That this is the case has been articulated by every CENTCOM commander since 9/11 in congressional testimony and elsewhere.  Or does a new dynamic include the enhanced role of Arab public opinion? Does this mean the US should change its political playbook on this issue, including how much it allows domestic politics to restrict its actions? Likewise, the EU will have to ask itself: Given that we need the Mideast to get beyond this conflict, if that means us stepping up more than we have previously, can we do that?

Mitchell Plitnick: Let’s shift the subject to domestic Israeli politics. Even if Avigdor Lieberman is indicted, it seems like the general Israeli shift to the right is a real and lasting trend. However, Israeli politics have swung back before. Do you see any chance of this happening now?

Daniel Levy: I agree with what you say about the Israeli rightward shift. And one has to recognize that there is no Israeli Jewish Left, certainly not in parliamentary terms. Kadima is many things, some constructive and encouraging, but “Left” is not one of them. Labor/Liberal Zionism, which founded the state, never came to grips with the fundamental question of how you effectively marry “democratic” and “Jewish”,  and how do you, in a pragmatic, humane and liberal way address the Palestinian issue. They had their chance and failed. The swing to the right has been overwhelmingly built on that failure.

Those unaddressed, unsettled questions that Labor Zionism bequeathed, took practical form — martial law over Arab citizens of Israel until 1966, the beginning of the settlements, all under Labor Zionism. But it’s created a situation today where Israel’s three largest parties are vying for the legacy of Revisionist Zionism. Kadima, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu are all led by people who would say they are the true heirs of Jabotinsky.

One can distill a more pragmatic and moderate form of government from that, especially regarding internal Arab issues. But that’s not a Left.

First, it has to be recognized how entrenched the shift to the right is, not only because there hasn’t been a mainstream Zionist narrative worthy of the term “liberal” for a long time. But also one needs to look at the social demographic profile of Israel today. Many people talking about Israel don’t know what they’re talking about, including some US policy makers. They interact with a tiny sliver of contemporary Israel.

The sector from whence one would expect a liberal shift to come – namely secular, urban, Ashkenazi Israelis—is somewhere between 15-20% of the population today. Another demographic bloc that could produce change has been excluded from power – the Arabs. In Zionist circles, Arab Knesset Members (from non-Zionist parties) are viewed as untouchables in terms of coalition governments. So if you want change, you’re talking about ultra-orthodox, modern orthodox, Sephardic communities and Russian communities, all with a relatively shallow grounding in liberal democratic politics. You’re talking about a sea change there.

I don’t think it’s impossible that a majority of Israelis could one day embrace liberal values, through a coalition of somewhat oppressed minorities. Current realities don’t serve Shas or the ultra-orthodox; and at a certain level they do have shared interests with Arabs and Russian immigrants.

But fostering liberalism in those communities is unlikely to be a short-term project, though it is worthy and I don’t rule it out. A more moderate, Livni-led government could emerge that could be instrumentalized to address the occupation, but that would not constitute a liberal politics or a break with worrying anti-democratic trends inside Israel. (It is worth paying attention to the possibility that under certain circumstances a two-state solution and retreat into a more “demographically pure” Israel could exacerbate those anti-democratic trends – think for instance about the narrative of post-withdrawal Judaization of the Negev and Galilee.) What’s needed is a new progressive Israeli narrative, at least to begin winning over adherents. But progressive Israeli politics is not vying for political power in the near to medium term future.

Lieberman does matter, personalities matter. If he were gone, it would change things, perhaps not dramatically, but it would change things a little. One has to understand and locate Lieberman’s politics not only in a Russian paradigm but also in the demographic obsession of post-Oslo Labor Zionism. That was the fertile breeding ground for a lot of the most ugly and anti-democratic politics we are now seeing in Israel.

Mitchell Plitnick: Israel’s policies seem to be more and more incompatible with those of most of their liberal Jewish supporters here in the US. While this has affected nothing on Capitol Hill, there does seem to be at least the potential for Israel to become a right-wing/Republican issue in the future. Republicans, especially in the current House of Representatives, with their cozy relationship with Netanyahu, seem to be trying to encourage this. Do you think being supportive of Israeli policies is becoming a partisan issue? And if so, is that bad for Israel and the Palestinians, and what should peace advocates do about it?

Daniel Levy: There is definitely a significant cohort of liberal American Jews deeply committed to Israel, in their lives, identity and in their own liberalism. But there is a very large group of liberal US Jews, Democrats, who by default would call themselves supporters of Israel, but for whom Israel is not really a part of their lives on a day-to-day basis, in their hearts and their politics. And there is a growing orthodox cohort, non-liberal, Republican, for whom Israel factors very prominently.

In the general scheme of things, I don’t think this is all that impactful, which is why the political constraints on American diplomacy are not necessarily based on correct readings. They probably exaggerate the political price to be paid. On the Republican side, with the almost complete phasing out of international realist Republicans from Congress, and with the strength of the Christian Zionist wing, you have very little dissent on Israel in the Republican caucus. It’s just really just a handful of libertarians, most of whom have the surname Paul.

On the Democratic side, there are a variety of views on this issue, because there are Democrats who allow their liberal politics to also apply to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Republicans know they can keep their side united and that Democrats will split, so they can make hay with this a little. Bibi and much of the Israeli right act and think like Republicans. They have little compunction about playing domestic US politics; they feel they can do so with impunity, and they seem to be right.

I think that over time this will be more and more of a headache for Democrats, because there is a constituency for non-Eric Cantor/Steny Hoyer politics on Israel. It’s the anti-war movement, foreign policy progressives, liberal human rights folks, and citizens who become more aware of Israeli-Palestinian realities.

If this trend continues, as it has for the last decade, this will be more of a headache for Democrats as long as they allow the Right to define what is pro-Israel and what US interests in the region are. We basically have a Democratic caucus saying, “Honestly, no, really, we’re just as pro-Israel as Republicans, no, really we are.”

You never hear them making the argument that not compromising on settlements, saying no to engagement with adversaries (Israel’s as well), encouraging wrong-headed Israeli policies is not good for the US or Israel, let alone the Palestinians. The Democrats are making it too easy for a hawkish Republican caucus to define and control this issue.

This article is licensed to Souciant courtesy of Babylon Times.


  1. We don’t seem to be willing to accept the obvious, that the strategy of the current Israeli government (and probably its predecessors as well), with the acquiescence of the Israeli public, is to talk about a peace settlement with the Palestinians and, simultaneously, to prevent it. They have decided that they prefer the status quo–a military occupation and huge military expenditures, occasional casualties, continuing settlement of the West Bank, and an exclusively Jewish Jerusalem–to the uncertainties of a two-state solution. And that status quo is sustainable as long as the United States is willing to tolerate it. However, Americans will some day realize that the interests of their country and those of its client Israel are divergent. At that point the sway of the peculiar coalition that comprises the Israel lobby in the US will crumble quickly, and Israel will find itself exceedingly vulnerable. I can only wonder what scenarios the Israelis are contemplating for the day when the United States is no longer the enabler of their hypocritical stance to negotiating with the Palestinians.

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