The U.S. Is Walking a Familiar Tightrope on Israel

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “The U.S. is walking a familiar tightrope on Israel”:

For all the changes in the Middle East, the United States’ core problem there hasn’t changed in 60 years: How can it protect Israel, its closest ally in the region, while also bolstering stability and maintaining its partnerships with Arab neighbors?

The same dilemma has recurred with numbing frequency over the decades: Israel is attacked by Palestinian or Arab foes; it retaliates decisively in an effort to restore deterrence; Arab civilians are killed; and calls mount for a cease-fire. The United States works to broker a formula that defuses the crisis. And an eventual U.S.-brokered cease-fire sets the stage for the next catastrophe.

Because of the monstrous terrorist attack by Hamas on Oct. 7, this time appeared different. The world seemed to understand the need for Israel to take decisive action. But memories proved short: As Gaza was hit by more than 7,000 airstrikes and Palestinian civilian deaths soared, international support for Israel weakened. Now, the United States is trying to keep faith with the Israelis as it also seeks to calm the Arabs and avert a wider war.

President Biden has been among the most skillful practitioners of this art of the impossible. He has embraced and consoled Israelis with his gift for empathy. But at the same time, he has quietly whispered in the ears of Israeli officials that they need to go slow, be careful, avoid a broader conflict and gradually move toward a two-state solution that can provide security.

Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s juggling act would be familiar to their predecessors: They are preserving Israel’s military options against Hamas, while simultaneously helping Qatar negotiate a deal to free Israeli hostages, warning Iran and Hezbollah against widening the war, and protecting U.S. forces against what have been more than a dozen direct attacks by Tehran’s proxies.

A review of the 60-year U.S. effort to manage this conflict yields some themes conveyed by American officials, over and over. The parties often haven’t listened, but, in this conflict, the stakes are higher. The Gaza war is a potential Cuban missile crisis moment for the region. We’re ominously close to a wider war. To avert disaster, all sides need to face some facts that U.S. analysts keep repeating.

Describing a similarly complicated U.S. situation during the 1982 Israeli siege of Palestinian forces in Beirut, then-Secretary of State George Shultz wrote later in his memoirs: “The Arab world blamed us, as Israel’s great ally and financial supporter, for all of Israel’s deeds and looked to us to end the fighting in a responsible way.” In Lebanon, he said, “The Israelis had overplayed their power, and Beirut … lay shattered.” The United States tried, with enormous difficulty, to rebuild order.

Trying to manage conflict between Israeli leader Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was “the closest thing to a diplomatic root canal I’ve ever experienced,” remarked former secretary of state Colin Powell, according to a memoir by his then-aide William J. Burns, who is now CIA director.

The Palestinians need new leadership. The current group has squandered opportunities for peace for half a century. It should be obvious after Oct. 7 that Hamas truly is a terrorist organization that rules Gaza at gunpoint. It should be clear, too, that the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas is a corrupt, feeble organization that’s holding on by a thread in the West Bank. The Palestinians need a new governing order, and Arab governments must help.

This is a moment of opportunity for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman: He has a chance to alter the dark narrative surrounding him since in the 2018 murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi — by brokering a gradual Arab effort to create a prosperous Palestinian state under new management.

Israel needs better political leadership, too. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shattered Israel’s unity in the months before the war. He promoted his personal political interest over the nation’s security, and the polls show that Israelis are angry about it. His government, which promoted settlers’ rights and religious extremists rather than national security, shouldn’t survive after the war is over.

This war, for all its horror, should revive Israeli interest in a two-state solution that might provide security and stability. It should demonstrate, as well, something that U.S. officials have been arguing for a generation: that reckless building of settlements poisons the chance for a stable Israeli democracy. Perhaps Israelis will conclude that the way back from this war passes through the tradition of tough-minded peacemakers such as former prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak.

Another lesson is that Israeli-Palestinian peace isn’t an end-state so much as a continuing process, led by the United States. That’s one theme of “Master of the Game,” the superb study of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger’s Middle East diplomacy by Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and special envoy for peace negotiations. “Peace for Kissinger was a problem, not a solution,” Indyk writes. Kissinger’s diplomatic machinations created a generally peaceful standoff that lasted 30 years.

Over decades, U.S. presidents have taken extreme risks to protect Israel. When Russia threatened to intervene militarily to protect Egypt during negotiations to end the 1973 war, President Richard M. Nixon, on Kissinger’s advice, ordered U.S. forces to Defcon 3, a heightened state of alert for possible nuclear conflict. The message was received.

When U.S. power has been strong and clearly communicated, wars in the Middle East have been followed by peace agreements that usually lasted. The United States needs to be forcefully involved now, and friends and adversaries need to listen.

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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