Tough Talk Between U.S. And Israel

Guests

Aaron David Miller, author, The Much Too Promised Land
David Makovsky, director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the relationship between the U.S. and Israel as "unshakeable." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the bond as "special." But lately, a series of escalating events — and tough talk — has led to rising tensions.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Reading between the lines in some news stories can be important. When it comes to the relationship between Israel and the United States, it's essential. And in the last two weeks, two stories inspire that kind of close attention.

One unfolded in public. During Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel last week, an embarrassingly timed announcement of an East Jerusalem building project prompted a war of words that some called a crisis.

The other unfolded more privately. In January, staff officers from U.S. Central Command gave a briefing to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where they expressed concern that the stalled Middle East peace process led Arab leaders to conclude that the U.S. won't stand up to Israel and that Israeli intransigence jeopardizes U.S. standing in the region.

According to some reports, an angry Vice President Biden reflected that briefing when, last week, he told Prime Minister Netanyahu that the building project undermined the security of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Since Israel's inception, no ally has been more important than the U.S., but the two stories suggest that maybe some in Washington, and maybe some in the U.S. military, are recalculating the cost-benefit analysis of that special relationship.

So what are the costs? What are the benefits? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later, we'll revisit the debate over rewriting textbooks in Texas, but first, Aaron David Miller is with us. He served under several administrations as Middle East negotiator. He's the author of "The Much Too Promised Land" and joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice of you to come by.

Mr. AARON DAVID MILLER (Author, "The Much Too Promised Land"; Former Middle East Negotiator): Pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And David Makovsky is a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. His book is "Myths and Illusions of Peace," and he joins us by phone from Arlington, Virginia. David, nice to have you back.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Author, "Myths, Illusions and Peace"): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: And before we get to the rift, I want to ask you both how serious you think this so-called Petraeus briefing is, Aaron David Miller?

Mr. MILLER: Well, you know, the argument that America's support, seemingly blind support, from the perspective of many Arabs and Muslims, Europeans and critics of Israel, costs American influence in the region, is by and large a credible argument.

There's no question that one of the sources of anger against America, not the only source, and I think that's the key issue, is our relationship with the Israelis, our support for authoritarian governments, our military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fact that we're just big, and we do what we want sometimes, where we want, also inspires enormous anger and resentment.

But there's no question that the special relationship with Israel, in the Arab world, is a source of great antagonism.

CONAN: I had not heard anyone take it as Vice President Biden reportedly did, so far as to say: Our support for Israel appears to cost American soldiers' lives.

Mr. MILLER: That to me is that I think has always been the position of critics of Israel within the administration, perhaps even within the military and the intelligence community. What is so notable, it seems to me about that remark, is that it has now moved up the food chain of talking points, from military commanders and in-house gossip, to having the vice president of the United States make the argument.

The notion that America's not special, necessarily, but exclusive relationship with Israel costs American influence is one thing. To make the argument directly to an Israeli prime minister, that it costs American lives, really is new.

CONAN: David Makovsky, your take on this.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, I don't think Biden has confirmed that. I saw that was a news report somewhere, but I, you know, I think the fact that Petraeus said what he said, which, you know, didn't go as far as this, is also in and of itself a new element.

But you know, I do think there are many sources of anger about the United States. You know, Aaron listed some, the support for authoritarian Arab governments, just being a superpower, having military bases everywhere. Europeans see us as too secular - too religious. The Arabs see us as too secular and that our consumer culture imposes on them in a way they don't like.

I mean, there's like 20 different things we could go through, and the question is, if the number was 19 versus 20, whether it would be decisive in any way, and I'm just, I'm really not sure.

I think the critics of Israel that Aaron was alluding to, you know, some of them, you know, certainly in the Arab world go, you know, farther, and they talk about a strict linkage that if we'd only solved this problem, it would unlock all the other conflicts of the Middle East, and I have not seen a shred of evidence to suggest that, and I find that when you talk to Arab government officials privately, they conceded the point, as well.

So I just think that while I accept the point that this issue is evocative in a wider sense, I think there are limits to that critique.

CONAN: And as we go through this process of talking about the costs and benefits of the relationship between the United States and Israel, briefly, David Makovsky, what do you think are the costs and benefits?

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Look, first of all, you know, there is a historic connection here that, you know, is hard to weigh. There is a feeling here of joint, you know, shared values. Some people call it the Judeo-Christian ethic, however you want to look at that, but it's basically looking at the world through a democratic lens.

And, you know, I don't think that's, you know, that's something to be ignored, but you know, this whole issue of values versus interest, I think the issue is both. I mean, on the issue of interest, I think that Israel and the Arabs basically, fundamentally, see some of the threats much more similarly, and I think a lot of the Arab states and Dennis Ross and I tried to put this out in our book. It's called, by the way, "Myths, Illusions and Peace," not the illusion of peace.

CONAN: Please excuse me.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: That's okay. It's all right.

CONAN: I put the punctuation in the wrong place.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: It's okay. But I mean, I think a lot of these modern Arab states, if you asked them quietly if Israel would disappear, what would be different? And the fact is that Israel is a force, is a counterweight to forces of radicalism in the region that are their enemies, as well.

These Arab states don't like Iran. They don't Hezbollah, and they don't like Hamas. I'm not here to say they love Israel, the Arab states, you know, they don't, but I think fundamentally, you know, there's more of a common outlook than one would think. And on the second level, I think if somehow if the U.S. distanced itself from Israel, there's no bilateral relationship that has been reiterated more often through the decades.

If the U.S. could, you know, disassociate from Israel, it could disassociate itself from any commitment in the world, and those commitments wouldn't be worth anything.

CONAN: Let's turn to you, Aaron David Miller. We were talking earlier about some of the costs. What are the benefits of the relationship with Israel?

Mr. MILLER: In my view, it's in the broadest conception of the American national interest to support like-minded societies. Freedom House, that studies democracies - argues that since 1950, 22 countries have maintained their democratic character continuously, only 22. It's a very small club.

Israel is one of them. So I think the value of affinity is absolutely critical and is supported by most public opinion polls. One I saw recently in February, a Gallup, 1,000 Americans, they listed 20 countries. After Great Britain, Japan and Germany and Canada, Israel is number five. Iran is 20, and the Palestinian Authority is 16.

But the key here is, when our relationship with Israel is looked at in the right way by us, I think it serves our interest - that is the special relationship. When it becomes exclusive, which I would argue it has far too much become under both the Clinton administration and the administration of George W. Bush, that exclusivity hurts us.

And frankly, I'm a supporter of a sovereign Jewish state. I defend the relationship, but the reality is we've lost, to a certain degree, real balance, and we've got to get it back.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation. Costs and benefits of our relationship with Israel, it seems to be in the air at the moment, as this diplomatic crisis unfurls, if it is a crisis. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Val(ph), Val with us from Los Banos and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly in California.

VAL (Caller): Yes, my comment is this. The main thrust of the argument should be Israel's policy toward the occupied territories. And my comment is it'll be the last estimate I've got, we give Israel $10 million a day, every day, in foreign aid. You would think that would buy us a little more influence than it does.

CONAN: Well, part of that is the billion dollars that we promised both to Israel and to Egypt, that's included in the peace agreement that got those two people to recognize each other, which is a benefit that I think everybody can agree on, but there's no question that Israel does get, I think it's Aaron David Miller, the number one recipient of American aid.

Mr. MILLER: I think Egypt and Israel together constitute almost 45 percent, and that's, of course, taking out now Iraq and Afghanistan.

CONAN: Right.

Mr. MILLER: And that Camp David entitlement, by the way, is not a frivolous investment. I mean, we've invested in two countries who are at war with one another for 30 or 40 years, and the cost of escalation between Israel and Egypt and the prospects, even given the reality that Israel is a nuclear power, it seems to me that investment, without question, is worthwhile.

The occupied territories and Israel's policies there, there's no question -land confiscation, housing demolition, settlement activity, bypass roads, all of these things that the Israelis do, almost none of which relate to their security, are things we need to take issue with, and I would argue strong issue.

But the key is trying to figure out a way and there's not a morality play here. It's not that the Palestinians are the forces of right or goodness and the Israelis are the forces of darkness and evil. The reality is both sides have mutual regional requirements, and they need to be met. That's the purpose of negotiations, and that's frankly what the Obama administration is trying -with the emphasis on the word trying - to do.

CONAN: And David Makovsky, let me turn to you. The Israelis I think universally agree well, I don't think Israelis universally agree on anything but many Israelis agree that the timing of this announcement was unfortunate, but that, nevertheless, this project was going to go ahead sooner or later anyway.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, yes. You know, they'd say, well, this whole thing was five years down the line. Look, I think part of the problem here, and it really gets to what Aaron just said, that's why you need a vibrant peace process with results that gives dignity to both sides and that I could argue that they need demarcate a border sooner than later.

The differences over land, ironically, with Olmert and Abbas, were only over four percent of the land. I know that's not what your listeners think - they think they'll kill each other forever over land. But in fact, the issue of the land piece of this conflict was the least of the disputed issues, and I think because this issue could be so corrosive, it's important to demarcate that border sooner rather than later because, frankly, 80 percent of the settlers live in less than five percent of the West Bank. And Israel could give offsetting, what we call land swaps, for them, but I feel that...

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off. We have to go to a break, though, and stay with us. Val, thanks very much for the call. We're talking about the U.S. relationship with Israel, about the costs and the benefits. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

There's a range of opinion in Israel on the public and private arguments with the U.S. officials. In the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Emanuel Rosen(ph) argued it's about trust. The problem is not the unpleasantness or momentary misunderstanding. The problem is that officials at the White House and State Department don't believe us and don't really wish to view Israel as the intimate, preferred partner it has been for years.

In the Israel daily Haaretz, from the left, Gideon Levy(ph) wrote: So promising at first, the administration began on the left foot, that is the right foot, at the heel of the Jewish and Israeli right, which continues to believe that an alliance with Israel is an alliance with the occupation, that friendship between two nations means giving Israel carte blanche to cause as much trouble as it likes. Those same people believe friendship means continuing the flow of massive aid without conditions, that it means not only funding the occupation but also cleaning up after its perpetrators by providing firm diplomatic support, and that friendship must be blind and automatic, to the point that it seems like Israel is the superpower, and America is under its protection.

And from the right, Issi Liber(ph) wrote in Jerusalem Post with a mirror of that view: There are certain red lines which no government of Israel may cross. Netanyahu on this occasion must stand firm. The current crisis transcends political or ideological differences between Likud, Labor and Kadima.

All mainstream parties should unite and convey to President Obama that Israel is a sovereign state and will not automatically bow to dictates of the U.S. administration. They need to make the U.S. administration and public understand that no government of Israel will agree to freeze construction in Jerusalem, the heart and soul of the Jewish people.

CONAN: We're talking today about opinion here in the U.S. with Middle East analysts Aaron David Miller and David Makovsky. We want to hear from you. What are the costs and benefits of the special relationship? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's turn next to Barb, Barb with us from San Jose.

BARB (Caller): Hi, I have a number of points, and I just hope I have the time to make them. First is that Israel is our only ally in that area of the world, and if we give them up we need them strategically and militarily. If we give them up, it'd be just like giving up West Berlin when it was in the middle of East Berlin. We need to have Israel there.

My next point is that if we say, oh, there were some Americans that were killed in the name of Israel so we're going to disavow them for that reason, well, that happens in a lot of countries. That's an extremely isolationist attitude, and that's never worked in history.

Next point: If we disavow Israel and say, well, if we give up Israel, then maybe we'll get an ally in the Arab-Islamic community, that's a huge risk for something we have to risk for that possibility.

Fourth, the projects that they're building, the housing that they're building, well, maybe the announcement was not such bad timing if it's taken as they could be discontinued. It could be a point of negotiation if talks begin. It's something they could give up.

So, and lastly, I think the most interesting and the biggest challenge that's coming up in Israel is the faster rate of growth as the Arab-Islamic population within Israel borders. That's going to be a real crisis.

CONAN: The democratic the demographic, excuse me situation that a lot of people Barb, it's fair to point out, the United States has a very close ally in Kuwait, bases in Qatar, and obviously Iraq. Well, that's a different situation. You'll have to see where that goes, but to say we don't have any allies in the Arab world is going a little too far.

That Israel is America's most important ally in that region is not in dispute, but to say we have no allies in the area but anyway, David Makovsky, is this should we see this perhaps as a moment of truth?

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Look, I think we need to just put this in proportion. Obama gave an interview last night and talked reaffirmed the alliance, and Biden, the whole idea of his trip to go over was to say even if there's differences, you know, the broad contours of the relationship remain strong.

And I think, you know, if you had to chart this crisis on a graph, it spiked up sharply on Friday when some of Biden's remarks seemed to be put into question, but I think that the public edge here has come off this and, given the statements of Clinton and Obama, and I hope that this is solved today, before there is a quartet meeting tomorrow in Moscow.

There was a statement coming out of Israel that the group of the seven top ministers, you know, seemed like they, you know, want to solve this crisis.

But I am concerned a little bit about what you said before, when you were reading the press commentary, of the lack of trust of two individuals, and that is between Obama and Netanyahu.

It would be interesting if Biden emerges as a go-between figure here, kind of a new portfolio for him in this relationship, but I am concerned what this portends for the future when the issue of Iran, which I realize is not our topic today, you know, that's one of the big wildcards out there in the Middle East today, I would argue the biggest wildcard.

And if Netanyahu has given up, you know, he didn't even try to call Obama during this crisis, not that we know of - that means he didn't think he could get through, that means he didn't feel he would have a common language - then I don't think that portends well when they have to deal with the, you know, the big enchilada, which is the issue of Iran over the next year or two. So I'm concerned about that, the unique chemistry and trust at the very top of these pyramids.

CONAN: Aaron David Miller, there is some was some frustration also seen on the Israeli side that, indeed, this kerfuffle let's get it down from crisis with Biden, they didn't want to talk about settlements. They wanted to talk about Iran and what's going to happen in the next year or two if Iran gets a nuclear bomb, and if, as many people believe, that sanctions will be ineffectual.

That is a major strategic interest not just of Israel but of the United States. It's a shared interest.

Mr. MILLER: It's huge, but the problem is that the Iranian clock - who knows when it's going to stop ticking? You know, it's the equivalent of walking and chewing gum at the same time. Superpowers, as well as competent powers, smaller powers like Israel, need to be able to multitask.

So you cannot simply say, well, until the Iranian file is somehow fundamentally closed and it will not be closed, I think, and we don't know how it's going to be closed for quite some time.

I agree, though, that we have to see the crisis in perspective. It's not '56 Suez. It's not the '75 disengagement. It's not even the 1991 flap between Baker, Bush 41 over housing loan guarantees. But it is not just a bump in the road either. And there are three issues, I think, which are potentially difficult and will resurface.

One is the continuing brouhaha over settlement activity, which is not going to go away. A second is what I believe is not right now a common approach to how to handle the negotiations. And a third is the issue, Neal, you referred to, and David did, as well, which is the trust issue.

In May of '89, when then-Prime Minister Shamir met for the first time with George H.W. Bush, their relationship never recovered from that meeting, because the president believed, over settlement activity, that Shamir had misled him.

Trust is absolutely critical, and if it's not there, you can expect brouhahas down the road. This is going to look more like a soap opera, frankly, than it is a serious working relationship between the two countries, and that's going to serve the interests of no one.

CONAN: Let's go back to Mark on the lines, and Mark is with us from Westborough in Massachusetts.

MARK (Caller): Yeah, hi. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted just to mention that the lobby here, the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States, controls Congress pretty much, and nobody in Congress would dare even criticize or question Israel's actions, be it with regard to the war crimes accusations in the Gaza or any other subject, of settlements and what have you.

CONAN: You're talking about the Goldstone Report.

MARK: The Goldstone Report. And this is a well-respected Jewish judge from Australia, I believe, who did come up with, you know, with the results of the investigation, and the war crimes against Israel. They challenged him...

CONAN: To be fair, Mark, war crimes by both sides were...

MARK: I'm not defending any other party, believe me, but if that name, if you had taken Israel out and put Iran, you know, the United States Congress would be voting, you know, to impose this and that and bringing people to judgment at the Hague.

Instead, for Israel, you know, during the Gaza massacre, Congress met and supported Israel, you know, and when the 1,200 innocent people were killed. And this is where it comes down to that Israel can get away with murder no matter what because it has a Congress that is (unintelligible) you know, pretty much can get away with it.

CONAN: All right, Mark, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it. And Aaron David Miller, a lot of people don't see the Goldstone Report as really coming down the middle.

Mr. MILLER: Well, it goes beyond the Goldstone Report. The framers created a system in this country, which was basically an open invitation to struggle. Interest groups, as long as they remained within moral, ethical and legal limits, lobby. They lobby for guns. They lobby for I'm now a member of the AARP. They lobby for that. They lobby for tobacco.

The reality is, lobbies lobby in our system. The question is: Do presidents lead? And every single time an American president Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush identified a national interest that was Arab-Israeli peace, they trump domestic political interests all the time.

The reality is we need a strategy. This is an important American interest. We need a strategy and we need a balance between toughness and reassurance to deal not just with Israel but with the Palestinians and the Arabs as well.

CONAN: Let me ask you both about where this goes from here. Of course, the Middle East is never a story that stands still. We had an incident today where a rocket fired from Gaza struck and killed a Thai worker in southern Israel. And the Israelis said this is beyond the pale, they've crossed a red line, and vowed a prompt and overpowering response. Let me ask you, David Makovsky, this is going to morph, it's going to change as events on the ground change.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Yeah, it could. I feel that's why we need a, you know, a very vibrant peace negotiation because I am concerned that if the paradigm of negotiation is discredited, the paradigm of violence as championed by Hamas will strengthen. And so I think that there's a kind of two competing narratives on what brings results, and I think it should be the narrative of negotiation.

I might just add that if we talk about rockets out of Gaza and without - not wanting to re-litigate the whole Gaza war, but the reason why Israel was forced in that war was because it unilaterally got out of Gaza and it abandoned the border. People think they control it but they don't. And all these tunnels where smuggling in rockets from Egypt into Gaza, and Israel acted with restraint until it could no more. But it was for several years, I think 4,000 rockets - that's after they left Gaza and pulled out 8,000 settlers. So the reality is very complex. And certainly, the interest of the United States is to strengthen the hands of the moderates and not the hands of the extremists.

CONAN: Again, to be fair, just to go back. A lot of people would say, yes, Israel did restrain itself for four years. But when it acted, it acted with disproportional force.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Yeah. You know, I think that's accurate. But the problem is the rockets were coming right outside of Tel Aviv and outside of Be'er Sheva. These are Israel's urban areas. I don't know if we, in the United States, would act with proportionate force if our cities were coming under attack. So I accept the characterization. There was disproportion, but I do think there was a context.

CONAN: We're talking about the U.S. and Israel now. Our guests, David Makovsky, director of Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and with Aaron David Miller, author of "The Much Too Promised Land," former adviser to six secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Robert(ph), Robert with us from Clinton in South Carolina.

ROBERT (Caller): Yes, sir. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: I just had a thought that possibly that this is a calculated move by the United States and Israel to provide cover for the United States in case Israel had to take action on Iran, that we could go hey, you know? We have no control over what they do.

CONAN: Boy, that seems pretty Machiavellian there, Robert. You may want to run for secretary of State. I don't know. The calculation for most people, David Makovsky, is that Israel could not attack Iran, if that's what it wants to do, without U.S. permission, both operationally and strategically.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, look, I think this is a very loaded and complex question. Let's look this way. I don't think Israel is, despite the depiction of some, is out to be, you know, to jump in here and go hit Iran. I think when the United States wanted to engage Iran, the Obama administration, the Israelis sat on the side. Now, the Obama administration says it wants to try sanctions, the Israelis will sit on the side.

The question is what if those other - if these rungs on the ladder, so to speak, you know, don't work? And then, in the context where all these other things are tried and fail, then I think an Israeli attack is possible. I think when people want to malign the U.S.-Israel relationship from the left, from the right, what they're missing is the fact that you'd have to be an air traffic controller to keep up with the number of visits coming from the U.S. and Israel, senior visits going back and forth in the last two months. These are all public.

About a dozen senior visits going in each direction and that's because these countries are trying to work together, as the United States is working together with its other allies, to deal with the Iranian threat. It's not about planning for a war, but it's trying to come up and be - to consult to make sure everyone is up to date, and to make sure everyone is included into the other's strategy. Whether Israel would ultimately attack, it might. But only, I think, as a last resort and I dont think were there yet.

CONAN: Another view in this email from Roslyn(ph) in Sharon, Massachusetts. The question of what benefits our relationship with Israel depends on your perspective. The fact is Israel is a democracy. A productive free market means it has been able to develop as a center of technology and innovation unmatched anywhere in the region. I think a lot of people would be surprised about how many services, technologies and medical advances that they rely on were created in Israel.

My son has a rare condition and the implant that keeps him healthy was developed in Israel. Were the U.S. to abandon Israel and Israel to founder, we would certainly lose this valuable economic and innovative engine to improve lives all over the world.

And Aaron David Miller, beyond these questions of, you know, great nations and their shared interests and their divergent interests and embarrassments in public and not, there is this strong relationship between the American people and the Israeli people, not just the Jewish community, but a lot of people.

Mr. MILLER: There's no question about it. And we are a democratic polity, which means that any foreign policy needs over time a sustainable domestic base. Does anybody actually believe that we could've sustained this policy now for 62 years - and really didn't become close until the - really, until the '80s in terms of intelligence sharing, prepositioning of equipment, research and development, the special relationship emerged. No. The reason the relationship endures is because the vast majority of Americans either don't care, or the ones who are committed basically acquiesce or actively support it, and that, I think, is extremely important. The notion that a bunch - a small group of people, six million American Jews, holds Americans foreign policy hostage is absurd, and in fact, it reflects, in my judgment, some darker motivations than that. So I think when the image of Israel changes in the mind of America, then and only then will the U.S.-Israeli relationship change. And that is the problem, of course, with an unresolved Palestinian problem. It threatens the demographic, democratic image of Israel. And that's over the long-term a serious problem.

CONAN: We're going to have to leave it there. Aaron David Miller, thanks for joining us here in Studio 3A. His book is "The Much Too Promised Land." David Makovsky, with us by phone from Arlington in Virginia. He's co-author of "Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East," and he's director of the project on Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Gentlemen, thanks very much for your time.

Mr. MILLER: Thanks, Neal.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Thank you, Neal.

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