America At War: Israel, the U.S. and the Middle East

August 20, 2005

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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As the U.S. and coalition forces continue military strikes in Afghanistan, the military prepares for the next step which could involve ground troops. Meanwhile, tensions are escalating in the Middle East as Israeli troops raided a West Bank town, killing six Palestinians and straining relations with the U.S. by ignoring President Bush’s appeal for calm.

What happens next? How will Israel’s actions affect the already precarious state of affairs?

Scott Lasensky, an expert on Israel and the Middle East, was be online to talk about Israel and the U.S.’s war on terrorism on Thursday, Oct. 25.

Lasensky, a Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as senior foreign policy analyst to the Gore 2000 presidential campaign. A former research fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, he holds a Ph.D. in political science from Brandeis University and won the Yitzhak Rabin-Shimon Peres Peace Award at Tel Aviv University in 1999.

Editor’s Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

The transcript follows.


washingtonpost.com: Good afternoon, Scott, and thank you for joining us. Today, Israeli troops pulled out of a West Bank village, and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a meeting to consider more withdrawals from Palestinian territories. How does Israel view its role in the process of peace in the Middle East and in this war on terrorism? How do the events of the last week -- the assassination of the Israeli cabinet minister and subsequent West Bank raid that left six Palestinians dead -- play into relations between Israel and the U.S. and Arab nations and the U.S.?

Scott Lasensky: First, thank you for having me.

In a more general sense, it’s important to remember that Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have nothing to do with Sept. 11 and the acts of terrorism against the U.S. That said, Israel factors into our response.

The Bush administration is understandably focused almost exclusively on the war against terrorism, particularly our military action in Afghanistan. As part of that obsession, it has become conventional wisdom within the administration that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be kept at a low flame. Thus, they are responding reflexively to escalations like the escalation we’ve seen in the last week. After the assassination of Zeevi, a member of the Israeli cabinet, no one in the administration was going to tell Israel to sit on its hands, nor should they. That said, one must always ask the question of Israel: is its response directed at the perpetrators of this action? It seems as if the Israeli response has been a mix of both disciplined, focused defensive measures as well as also punitive measures.

In terms of how Israel sees its role in the war against terrorism, the situation is analagous to the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, in which Israel was asked to remain on the sidelines. While some of the concern in Israel that the country will pay a price for the American coalition today is understandable, and is also similar to the same kinds of concerns Israeli leaders had in 1990-91. The big picture is that Israel stands to reap substantial dividends from America’s war against terrorism. As hard as it is for Sharon to accept that Israel’s role and Israel’s contribution needs to be quiet or outside of the limelight, he [Sharon] would be well served to recall Shamir’s decisions a decade ago.


Frederick, Md.: At the Camp David meetings in the last days of the Clinton administration, Yasser Arafat rejected a peace proposal from the Israelis that provided the Palestinians with over 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza and rights to East Jerusalem. Following the rejection, the Palestinians began another violent intifada. Why shouldn’t we Americans conclude that the Palestinians really do not want peace, but instead the destruction of Israel? With that said, like the Germans and Japanese, must the Palestinians suffer total, abject defeat before they are able and/or willing to become peaceful?

Scott Lasensky: Arafat’s mistake at Camp David was monumental -- particularly his inability to offer meaningful counterproposals, or until this day articulate a Palestinian vision for a permanent settlement. Granted, it’s hard to understand what Palestinian aspirations are, and Palestinian behavior at the level of the street is one indication, but may not be a comprehensive one. It will remain difficult to understand what Palestinian political aspirations are until their leaders like Arafat articulate this in a clear way. Until that occurs, their national movement is likely to pay the price.

Until Israel or the Palestinian Authority declares total war on the other side, the German and Japanese metaphors are not quite analagous. But certainly interesting and provocative for you to raise.


Washington D.C.: I know it’s very hard for Zionists like you, Scott, to face up to the idea that Arabs and Muslims are actually human beings with the same innate rights as everyone else. But, you know, until you really do recognize it -- this disaster will not be resolved.

My liberty, as my life, is not for sale. Please spare me any BS about Barak’s "generous" Bantustan "peace offer" last year. The "peace" of the boot and the whip is not any sort of peace at all. Israel must dismantle every settlement, and withdraw from the entire occupied territories. Right now.

Scott Lasensky: Palestinians as a people and as individuals have rights. But the national movement also has an obligation to maintain its commitment to resolve outstanding issues at the negotiating table, rather than with a rifle.


Bowie, Md.: Until Sept. 11, few Americans paid much attention to the internal politics of Middle East nations except Israel.

Have we been missing a big picture of gilded societies with ultra-rich royal families that do not, in truth, represent the people of their countries? Is violent, intolerant Islam as personified in the Taliban and bin Laden an expression of the frustration of the common person of the Middle East, just as Ayatollah Khomeini was against the Shah 20 years ago?

Scott Lasensky: Americans may have been ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East outside of Israel, but their media, which in the last decade seriously reduced foreign coverage, is partly at fault. In terms of the Iran analogy, that is no doubt high on the minds of senior American officials. The lasting message for American policy toward the Middle East that emerged from Sept. 11 is that it will no longer be possible for the United States to support openness, whether it be open societies or open economies, in every other region except for the Middle East.


Atlanta, Ga.: Considering that Israeli government is responding to continued terrorist attacks upon its people, how can the United States condemn such action when the U.S. has reacted in the same manner as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks and in dealing with Osama bin Laden. What is the difference here? If we are truly fighting a war against "terrorism" should we not be supporting Israel in its attempts to combat terrorist acts despite the historical implications of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

Scott Lasensky: On the whole, this administration and the previous one understood that the defense of Israel should be left to Israel. The present concern in Washington is two fold: that Israeli-Palestinian issues do not distract from our efforts to maintain support in the region and elsewhere for our military campaign; and the second concern is that Israel’s response to each and every terrorist act, particularly last week’s heinous crime, are measured, focused and disciplined in striking at the source rather than being punitive. The big picture here is that in light of Sept. 11, the Israel relationship will only grow stronger, and I believe that Americans as a people are beginning to have a greater appreciation for the challenges Israel faces.


Washington, D.C.: U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338 stipulate that under international law, it is illegal to expand settlements in an occupied territory. The West Bank and Gaza Strip are "occupied territories," nevertheless Israeli settlements continue to expand on these Palestinian lands...provoking the continuing cycle of anger and frustration between Israelis and Palestinians.

How is it that Israel’s violation of this international law continues unfettered? And how has it become possible that the freezing of new settlements on Palestinian territory is now a point of negotiation in the peace process -- something that MIGHT occur only after the Palestinians stop the violent complaining of this Israeli injustice? Isn’t this putting the cart before the horse?

Scott Lasensky: The settlement enterprise in the territories increasingly looks like the hardest piece for Israel to swallow. The settlement enterprise is increasingly becoming the achilles heel of positive things Israeli leaders have wanted to do in the last decade and will want to do in the years ahead. In the immediate sense, with this issue overwhelmed by Sept. 11, the best hope would be for adoption of the Mitchell recommendations about a settlement freeze. Only when both sides, particularly the Palestinians, return to the negotiating table, can the Barak proposals on dismantling certain settlements be considered.

The saddest part of Israeli-Palestinian issues today is that it appears that leaders on both sides prefer the status quo to a return to a better way. And the fact that so much of the debate here and there focuses on who’s to blame for last year’s collapse of the process reflects how bankrupt the situation has become in terms of ideas and leadership.

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