Ameinu American foreign policy American Jews Bush Administration Israel Israeli occupation Israeli settlements Middle East peace process Palestinians

A diplomatic tool: the “freyer” factor

So just how much pressure can and should the U.S. apply to both Israelis and Palestinians after the Annapolis conference? The “P word” -pressure– still sends chills down the spines of too many mainstream American Jewish leaders, including those who know full well that, at times, Israeli Prime Ministers have desparately needed American pressure to give them the political cover to take politically unpopular steps.

As part of my research for a book I’m working on, I’ve been talking to a wide range of left-of-center Israelis about this issue, gauging the extent to which they think the U.S. should lean hard on the Israelis and assessing the point at which diplomatic pressure will impede, rather than enhance, progress towards an agreement. It’s a complicated, thorny, emotional issue, one that deserves a more thorough examination that I can muster in today’s post. For the time being, I want to share the cool, clear wisdom of Ephraim Sneh, a leading light of Israel’s Labor party and former Deputy Defense Minister in the Olmert government.

Sneh told me last year that he believed U.S. pressure on Israel was justified when Israel was not living up to its obligations to the U.S. “Israelis don’t want to be `freyers’ [Hebrew for `suckers’]. To be a freyer is a fate worse than death to most Israelis. And they understand that Americans don’t want to be freyers either.” Therefore, he said, Israelis would support or at least not object too strongly if the U.S. prodded Israel to keep the promises made in the road map.

On Sunday, at a board meeting of Ameinu, I asked Sneh to share his perspective again on American pressure. It’s a critically important issue. Soon, the U.S. may well have to make tough decisions about how hard to lean on both parties. Both Olmert and Abbas have agreed that the U.S. will monitor and assess whether each side is keeping its promises. And, unless Olmert is more courageous than he appears to be, the time will probably come when, in the judgement of the Americans, Israel is not doing what it said it would do. Then what?

I specifically asked Sneh about the value of American pressure when it came to Israel’s settlements policy. Some brief backround:

Olmert has promised to halt Israel settlement expansion and to dismantle 24 illegal outposts in the occupied territories, in accordance with the road map. As noted in a recent article in New York Jewish Week:

If the Olmert government follows to the letter the road map’s requirements, all the development [in the territories] could come to a halt. The document requires the government to freeze “all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements).”

But the precise definition of the term “settlement freeze” has long been murky. Last week, Olmert pledged not to establish any new settlements and to halt land expropriation for building. But that still allows the government to move forward on an untold number of housing units at varying stages of planning.

“They might say we’re freezing all future units, but we’re going to complete the existing units. There are many points of approval where we can argue. If you ask me, no settlement activity means no bulldozer activity,” said Hagit Ofran, the chief settlement monitor for Peace Now. “If you’re going to a peace deal, how can you continue to build when you know you’re going to evacuate?”

According to Peace Now, there is active construction in 88 of Israel’s recognized settlements and about 10 outposts. Meanwhile, none of the 24 illegal outposts Sharon promised Bush he would dismantle have come down.

How likely is it that Olmert will become the first prime minister to check the 40-year expansion of Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as he totters atop an already shaky coalition government?

It is very unlikely, without strong, vocal American insistence. But Sneh, at least, thought the issue of America’s stance on the settlements wasn’t all that complicated.

“You don’t need a satellite photo to judge whether or not the settlement outposts are taken down. It will be clear…” On the definition of settlement expansion, he said, “It is clear what this means. If you build, if you expand, then you are violating the terms…Stop the building. Stop construction. It’s simple…Either you stop building or you don’t. Either the Palestinians arrest terrorists in Nablus or they don’t.”

He didn’t explicitly say that he backed some form of public American pressure if Olmert waffled on this issue. But, based on last year’s interview, he was clearly implying that he thought it would be helpful. (I did ask his permission to publish his comments here).

There is at least a chance that if the U.S. openly pushes both sides, Olmert will be able to point to American prodding to justify dramatic steps to stop the expansionist madness, for the first time. Abbas and Fatah will have more political cover to go the extra mile and clamp down on terrorist cells in the West Bank. Providing that political cover will require courage from the Bush Administration…and the support of all the American Jewish leaders who are uncomfortable with saying the “P-word” aloud, even though they endorse it.

I hope the Israeli government, the Israeli public and American Jewish leaders understand that Americans also don’t want to be taken for freyers. People in this country are sick and tired of this whole mess. None of the recent polls that show American support for Israel have convinced me otherwise. No amount of clever hasbara will cover up broken promises by either Israel or the Palestinian Authority. Both sides need to start keeping their word.

15 thoughts on “A diplomatic tool: the “freyer” factor

  1. It’s unclear to me why Americans should worry about whether or not an Israeli officials thinks American pressure is “justified.” The most important question is whether it is justified from America’s perspective. It is not clear to me if you agree with this. If you don’t, then you are feeding the conspiracy theorists, like the throngs on Philip Weiss’s blog, another gift.

  2. When my employer pays me more than we’ve negotiated, I am inspired and work extra hours, with zeal.

    When my employer nickels and dimes me in negotiation, and then takes every opportunity to delay what he has promised, I usually get indifferent to his success, and work from duty and professional responsibility rather than enthusiasm.

  3. On the US assisting untying the Gordian knot.

    I think Israel had better wait until a more competent leader is in power. Bush would be over his head, and knows it.

  4. Marco, I think you’re over-reacting. All Dan meant, I presume, is that Sneh thought a certain level of pressure was justified from the perspective of an Israeli. That doesn’t mean Dan has the same perspective, or uses the same threshold test for American pressure. At least I don’t think he does…If I’m wrong, Dan, please let us know.

  5. Thanks, Teddy, for trying to clarify what I meant.

    I continue to believe that no settlement, no agreement, will work unless a majority of Israelis go along with it. Even if the fantasies of the hard leftists were actualized and there were harsh, U.S.-led sanctions on Israel, not much would change unless large numbers of Israelis felt that both the changes and the international pressure were “justified.” The sanctions against South Africa would have had minimal impact in the absence of large-scale opposition to apartheid within the white community. (I am not saying Israel’s situation is comparable to that of pre-apartheid South Africa’s, although, as I’ve written in the past and now even Ehud Olmert admits, Israel is rapidly approaching the point where comparisons to an apartheid regime will become valid: I am just discussing the efficacy of diplomatic tactics).

  6. Again, I have no faith in the Bush administration to apply any policy consistently, sufficiently to provide any guidance or support for any policy or political initiative, but the entropic.

  7. Richard,

    There are, I’ve been told, still smart and competent careerists in the State Department. Some of them came up with the road map, which, for all of its flaws, was a reasonable plan when it was devised. Once the election season heats up, nothing major is likely to be accomplished. And Bush needs to do something remarkably positive and counter-intitutive to salvage a sliver of his legacy. So the danger of doing nothing now outweighs the danger of his State Department doing something truly inane.

  8. Bush changed his language from “we are committed” to “we’re involved” to “we’re available” to “its your responsibility”.

  9. But Bush is the brainless puppet here. In the past, the forces of darkness pulled the strings. There are other people in the Administration who intend to remain at the State Dept or who also want to remake their legacy after Iraq, like Rice. They appear to be pulling the strings at least on this issue…And look at the calculated leak of the revision of the intelligence estimate on Iran. There are also more reasonable people in the intelligence agencies who want a shot at controlling the puppet….

  10. Not a basis of hope as far as I can see.

    Bush has his hands on the reigns, not Rice. He isn’t skilled enough to navigate these, and he will be asked to.

    Rice has no leverage because she isn’t the boss. And the boss has no leverage because he isn’t intimate with the issues, nor does he have the political skills.

    The extent of his staff’s political skills were for the purpose of elections.

  11. Richard,
    Rice has leverage to the extent that the parties believe that she is supported by her president and his enthusiasm for the process. So far, his support for the process seems to be pro forma. Bush would not put pressure on Israel to any serious extent during a presidential election year unless he wants to screw the Republican nominee. If evangelical Christians believe that the U.S. is pressuring Israel into a dangerous peace agreement with Pal terrorists they might stay home in Nov 2008. Besides, pressure would only work if Bush could equally apply it to the Palestinians, which he can’t. He could do this only if he had a united Pal government to apply it to and he had greater influence. That is why dual sponsorship of the peace process with Brussels would make sense. In the Northern Ireland peace process (NIPP)London could put some pressure on the unionists and Dublin could put some on the nationalists. But even there, Blair could put only so much pressure on David Trimble, the ruling UUP leader. And neither Blair nor Dublin was willing to put serious pressure on Sinn Fein to get the IRA to disarm. So don’t expect much from the Annapolis process.

  12. There are situations where unilateral right actions are possible and should be done. Removing settlements and outposts that only function in context of the expansion program (as distinct from security of Israeli civilians), are examples of “concessions” that should be done unilaterally, and asap.

    Those make the difference between whether the Arab world perceives Israel as falsifying or manipulating its participation in peace talks, or is in earnest.

    While there are many that are unconditionally opposed to, enemies of, Israel, my sense is that the majority form their opinions, rages, actions conditionally.

    If then Israel did what it could, rather than what it could get away with, that would be seen, by many if not all.

    There are right actions that objectively cannot be taken without bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreement, and those should be orchestrated between the parties WITH the help of third parties, assertive even coercive help if necessary.

    Not doing what CAN be done

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.