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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East | The Nation

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A World Apart? : The White House and the Middle East

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"Judeans," in other words, have developed a world apart--theocratic, militant, tribalist--though many of them, in fact, are wards of the state, supported by state-supplied settlement infrastructure, family allowances and religious schools. (Just after Obama's speech, I watched one strapping settler tell Israeli television that the American president had been very professional and good on human rights but that he'd quoted the Talmud, and if he'd really read it he'd know that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.) Judeans may half believe that one fine morning Iran's mullahs will accept the incineration of Tehran and Qom for the pleasure of incinerating Tel-Aviv. Yet when they speak of existential threats, what they actually fear is the return of a couple of million Palestinian refugees to East Jerusalem and West Bank towns, transforming the city into an Arabic-speaking megalopolis, much as Tel-Aviv is a Hebrew-speaking one. They fear Arab rights in the state of Israel--and the very concept of an inclusive Israeliness. They regard Palestinian nationalism, in fact, much the way Arabs on the coastal plain in 1948 regarded Zionism, as bound to bring a flood of immigrants that will overwhelm their way of life.

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Bernard Avishai
Bernard Avishai lives in Jerusalem and New Hampshire. He is a visiting professor of government at Dartmouth and an...

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So no Israeli leader, Tyler knows, will confront Judeans, many of them armed with automatic weapons, for the sake of Palestinians--who, Benjamin Netanyahu warns, just might fire missiles at Ben-Gurion Airport. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Fatah's Mahmud Abbas reportedly got stuck in talks over such matters as the town of Ariel, smack-dab between Ramallah and Jenin; the status of Jerusalem; and Palestinian refugees--always the five-foot leap over a seven-foot pit. Why should Olmert have conceded things that would tear Israel apart?

On the other hand--so Tyler's story of Dulles instructs--how long can any Israeli leader dare to defy an America administration that would lead the Western powers with a plan of its own, rooted in what Obama called "interests" of its own? Tyler might have added that Israeli moderates need the specter of American abandonment--of diplomatic isolation leading to economic isolation, a grave threat to Israel's high-tech economy--to confront Judeans and win back at least the Russian Israelis, who did not leave the Soviet Union to live in a little Jewish Pakistan.

But what, then, of the Israel lobby? Dulles, shmulles? Actually, the idea that presidents have been trapped by American Jewish pressure--and that Obama is bound to be--does not stand up to Tyler's history. It is better to rely on the taxonomy he implies, even if the intersecting categories are not airtight and every administration is not just one thing or another.

First, we might categorize presidents according to their knowledge of the region--if not their subtlety about the Arab world, their sophistication about the developing world more generally--as compared with, say, a Manichaean ideology in which preemption of dark forces takes precedence over any peace, which could anyway never be trusted. The latter view was hammered into a platform by neoconservatives during the late 1970s--one that cast America in a perpetual fight against evil (serially, "evil empire," "radical evil," "axis of evil") and cast Israel as America's biggest aircraft carrier. Second, we might categorize presidents as relatively strong or weak. Do they have broad popularity and reliable Congressional support for their agenda, however modest, or does presidential popularity fluctuate with media-hyped judgments of their efficacy or ineffectuality, or their virtues or peccadilloes, while each Congressional action hinges on tough votes? Finally, do presidents have a peculiarly soft spot for Israel, a penchant for seeing the Jewish state as a tribute to freedom or the answer to an ingenuous religious impulse--as natural to the Middle East as the Holocaust museum is to the Mall or "Jerusalem" is to Baptist hymns? Or do presidents see Zionism admiringly enough but mainly through the prism of the practical security problems Israeli leaders say they have?

Eisenhower--Tyler's hero, in a way--might be classified as sophisticated, popular and focused sincerely on Israel's security. (Eisenhower's army liberated the death camps, after all.) Kennedy can be classified pretty much the same way. Both administrations wanted to keep the region calm and were mainly set against Israel's acquiring nuclear weapons. They were certainly unwilling to indulge Zionism's irredentist claims.

The first shift came with President Johnson, especially after the Six-Day War, when his power was still great. But Johnson's ignorance of the Middle East, made worse by Vietnam-induced paranoia, was twinned with peculiar affections for liberal and Jewish allies--not just Fortas and Krim but Arthur Goldberg and the New York bankers Abe Feinberg and David Ginsburg--who prompted him to throw his considerable political strength directly behind Israel's cause. At first, as reciprocal escalations in May 1967 seduced Nasser into reimposing a blockade on the Strait of Tiran, Johnson tried to restrain Israeli forces and deal with the matter by international action. Then, after Israel's mobilization was followed by a shocking victory, Johnson tried to bask in its reflected glory. He delivered Israel its first Phantom jets, opening decades of codependent relations between the IDF and the Pentagon. He backed Israel's interpretation of UN Resolution 242, which nurtured its hope of keeping much of the conquered land and all of Jerusalem. "Johnson and Rusk," Tyler writes, "faced a choice: support Israel's occupation strategy or demand a full withdrawal. There was very little debate, at least in the White House. Johnson believed that Nasser had provoked the war, and though Israel had ignored his pleas to avoid a rush to combat, Johnson acceded to Israel's desire on how to play the postwar diplomacy."

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