A Realist Breakthrough?

Maybe

by , May 03, 2010

Now don’t get all excited, or anything, but there is a real chance that the Obama administration may be on the way to a general Middle Eastern peace settlement, one that bypasses the relatively narrow Israeli-Palestinian question, and cuts right to the chase. As reported in the Wall Street Journal

“The U.S. is negotiating with Egypt a proposal to make the Middle East a region free of nuclear weapons, as the U.S. seeks to prevent Iran from derailing a month-long U.N. conference on nuclear nonproliferation that begins Monday. U.S. officials familiar with the move call it an important step in assuring countries that Washington—criticized by some for its silence about Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal—will equitably address weapons proliferation across the region, as Iran seeks to shift focus away from its own nuclear program.” 

The irony of the Israeli push to sanction and threaten Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program – a program, by the way, which our own intelligence community believes was abandoned in 2003 – is that it has focused unwanted attention on the one country in the region which already has nukes: Israel. With 600 nuclear-tipped missiles, at a minimum, armed and aimed at god-knows-who, Israel has stubbornly refused to even acknowledge the existence of such a formidable arsenal. There is a certain hollow ring to the outrage of Israeli leaders as they accuse Iran of violating the terms of a treaty Israel has steadfastly refused to sign.  

In spite of how many times the Obama administration tries to console and appease the Israelis, reassuring them of our unflinching and nearly unconditional support, Obama the campaigner had to eventually become Obama the commander-in-chief – i.e. the defender of US interests worldwide. Having sworn eternal allegiance to the Lobby when in campaign mode – remember the humiliating ritual they put him through? – the president must now uphold his oath of office to protect and defend the United States – not Israel – first and last.  

When our emissaries return to Washington and report that our support in the region is slipping-to-nonexistent, as the sainted General David Petraeus recently did, the president must act. The US tilt toward Israel is so exaggerated that it is almost a caricature of al-Qaeda’s propaganda, and nowhere is this more glaring than in the realm of nuclear brinkmanship.  

The US has no leverage, and no standing, to push for the preemptive dismantling of a nonexistent Iranian Manhattan Project, when it follows Israel’s lead in never even referring to their nuclear arsenal. The one Obama administration official who did mention it was viciously attacked, and hasn’t said boo about it since, but – unless you’re under the age of three – pretending something doesn’t exist won’t make it go away. Israel’s nukes cast a long shadow over the region, and the costs of denying it continue to rise. 

The Israelis kvetch that even the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an “existential threat” to the Israeli people – evoking images of a second Holocaust – and yet every Arab population in the region is already living that nightmare. Can you imagine Prime Minister Avigdor Lieberman pushing the button, and vaporizing, say, Tehran, or Cairo? I can. This is a guy who once said Israel ought to bomb the Aswan dam, a former  bouncer who is now the Foreign Minister of a nuclear state. 

Israel is one of the few countries on earth which, along with North Korea, refuses to join the NPT. Unlike the crazed North Koreans, however, who boast about their nuclear capabilities, the Israelis insist on this ambiguous fig leaf – and the US goes along with it, albeit with increasing reluctance.  Imagine you’re Gen. Petraeus, and you have to traipse around the Middle East wearing this skimpy attire: it’s embarrassing.  

It’s also contrary to US interests, which lie in preventing not only the Iranians but also the Israelis from reducing the region to a radioactive desert. If the US truly wants to see Iran come around, forswear nukes forever, and submit to a credible regime of inspections and full disclosure, then they must not only acknowledge but also seek to disarm the Israelis. Israel, in short, must sign the NPT. 

This is the only possible meaning of the nuclear-free zone concept as applied to the Middle East: peripheral noise about how “Washington also reassured Israel it won’t foist a nuclear-free zone on the region until all parties agree to it and significant progress has been made on Mideast peace” is just a lot of static. “Mideast peace” can’t be achieved unless and until the threat of an Arab holocaust is lifted.  

As the United Nations convocation on the NPT convenes this Monday, with an address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the US and Israel are handing him a club to beat them over the head with. This is a price the Israelis are perfectly willing to pay, since they don’t have to care about world – and particularly Arab – opinion. The US, however, is in a different position entirely, and here is where the supposedly identical interests of the two nations radically diverge.  

Using Egypt as the intermediary, the Obama administration is tentatively advancing a rather vague proposal to convene a conference on a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East at some unspecified future date. This proposal is supposed to go “beyond what the US has been willing to do before,” according to a “senior US official” cited by the Journal. Whether this means putting everyone’s cards on the table, and pressuring the Israelis to come out of the nuclear closet remains doubtful, because some in the administration are seeking to attach a fatal precondition: “Mideast peace,” i.e. a comprehensive conclusion of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: 

“U.S. officials stressed, however, that they didn’t believe that would happen without first achieving major advances in Arab-Israeli peace talks. ‘We are concerned that the conditions are not right unless all members of the region participate, which would be unlikely unless there is a comprehensive peace plan which is accepted,’ said Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.” 

Tauscher, the exemplary DLC “moderate” during her tenure as a Bay Area congresswoman, has been decidedly immoderate in her stubborn refusal to break the “see no nukes” injunction, never once – despite repeated questioning – admitting Israel possesses “weapons of mass destruction.”  

Why do we continue to play this game? 

An increasingly influential group of realists within the Obama administration is pushing the nuclear-free zone initiative, but they need help from the grassroots. The Lobby is already all over this, because it represents a threat to their hegemony in Washington. Should it succeed, the nuclear-free zone intiative would signal a fundamental shift away from the Israel-centric policies of the past – exemplified to the nth degree by the Bush administration – and toward a policy that puts America and American interests first.  

It is surely in our interests to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to make this a precondition for any progress on the nuclear issue is not. Israel has spent the last few years claiming Iran’s alleged pursuit of nukes represents an “existential threat,” but what will they say to a proposal for general and complete nuclear disarmament? If the threat were real, they’d agree immediately. Since there is no such threat, however, existential or otherwise, and since in reality the threat comes from nuclear-armed Israel, and not (as yet) Iran, the Israelis have absolutely no interest in giving up their nuclear trump card. After all, they may have to play it some day.  

When the Israeli historian Benny Morris wrote an op ed piece for the New York Times justifying an Israeli nuclear first strike, I took it seriously. His illuminating essay reflected, I thought, more than just his own view, but fairly represented a current of opinion with increasing influence in Israeli ruling circles. As I have documented in this space for years, the growth of political and religious extremism in Israel is one of the most dangerous trends in existence, precisely because the Israelis enjoy unquestioned military dominance, rivaling the US in their ability to project power in the region.  

It is the growing influence of extremist elements in Israeli society that is sabotaging any prospects of settling the Palestinian question. The US is not going to impose a settlement on the Israelis, or threaten to withhold aid: that’s politically impossible for the Obama administration, and Tauscher knows it. To make “Mideast peace” a precondition for de-nuclearizing the region is to invert the process. The idea is that you first ensure the physical survival of the people of the region, and then get down to the details of just how they’re going to live together. That’s just common sense – but it’s been a very long time since something as plebeian as common sense set the standard in the making of American foreign policy. 

The nuclear-free zone was first advanced by the Syrians, in 2003: at the time, only Arab media outlets and Antiwar.com noted it. As I wrote back then: 

“The hallmark and guiding principle of U.S. policy in the region is simple: one standard for the Arabs, and another one for the Israelis. Bashar al Assad found this out when tried to explain to Colin Powell why Israel, too, must get rid of its WMD. Powell’s response to the Syrian suggestion that the U.S. back their proposed UN resolution to rid the entire Middle East of nukes and other WMD, submitted to the Security Council on Friday, was to reject out of hand the principle of evenhandedness: ‘Clearing such weapons from the region is a long-standing U.S. goal, but now is not the time to address that matter,’ is how Ha’aretz characterized his attitude.” 

Will the Obama administration go beyond Bush-ism in the Middle East? That remains to be seen. But the mere hope should give impetus to a broad-based grassroots movement to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. This movement will put pressure on all parties, including but not limited to the Israelis and the Iranians, to agree to give up their nuclear aspirations. In the case of Israel, we have the added obstacle of getting them to even acknowledge the existence of their nuclear arsenal, let alone persuading them to forswear a first strike.  

Make no mistake about it. An Israeli first strike against a perceived threat – a perception that is perhaps based on mistaken intelligence – is entirely within the realm of the possible. If indeed the Iranians are trying to build a nuclear deterrent, we are well along the road to a conflict of horrifying proportions. The United States has a moral and practical interest in preventing such a nightmare scenario. That is why a nuclear-free Middle East must be taken up by the United States government without hesitation or preconditions.  

This is a project that the peace movement should take up: it doesn’t do to just sit on the sidelines and complain. It is all well and good to critique the administration’s policy, but the point is to make a difference, and in this case we can. A grassroots movement, petitions, lobbying Congress to pass a resolution – all these activities will support those in the administration who are fighting for a more realistic policy in the Middle East.

Read more by Justin Raimondo