Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Kenneth Levin, a clinical instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a Princeton-trained historian, and a commentator on Israeli politics. He is the author of The Oslo Syndrome: Delusions of a People Under Siege.
FP: Kenneth Levin, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
I would like to talk to you today about how and why Israelis, many of whom previously invited American pressure on their government, have responded in so unified a way -- and so negatively -- to the pressure from Obama.
But first, let’s set the stage a bit with the Obama administration’s disposition toward Israel.
A recent piece in the Washington Post noted that the only country in the world with which the U.S. has worse relations since Obama took office is Israel.
Why do you think this is?
Levin: The Post was referring to a recent poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project which found that, of 25 countries surveyed, only in Israel was the public image of the United States worsening.
The Post editorial attributes this to President Obama’s having picked a very public fight with Israel over building in settlements. He has also rejected understandings concerning the parameters of construction within settlements that had been in place under former American administrations and were defined more explicitly with the Bush Administration.
In addition, Obama has made no comparable demands on the Palestinians, even though the so-called Roadmap, advanced by the Quartet of the U.S., Russia, the UN and the EU and supposedly embraced by Obama, requires steps by the PA "at the outset." These include security measures aimed particularly at ending all anti-Israel terrorism and dismantling terrorist infrastructures and independent militias; institution-building intended to establish a "strong parliamentary democracy "; and an end to anti-Israel incitement.
FP: And the Palestinians have done what with these required steps?
Levin: There has, of course, been virtually no movement by the Palestinians on any of these steps. On the contrary, Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah, as well as Hamas, continues to promote anti-Israel terror and to praise terrorist "martyrs." It also continues to employ its media, mosques and schools to attack Israel's legitimacy and call for its destruction. Indeed, Abbas himself has refused to endorse Israel's legitimacy, demands a Palestinian "right of return" that would transform Israel into yet another Arab-dominated state in the region, and continues to honor those who died attacking Israeli civilians.
Not only has the Administration not put any public pressure on the PA to meet its Roadmap obligations, but President Abbas has demonstrated he feels under no pressure to do so. While in Washington for meetings with President Obama and Administration officials, he stated that he intends to take no steps toward accommodation but will essentially wait for what he expects will be Obama’s "delivering" Israel.
FP: Why has Obama taken this path of abandoning prior Israeli-American understandings and engaged in a high-profile attack on Israeli policy while making no corresponding demands of the Palestinian side?
Levin: The President has clearly given a high priority to reaching out to the Muslim world and particularly to the Arab states and Iran. Publicly pressuring Israel is consistent with that priority. Of course, his outreach is most focused on appeasing those Muslims hostile to America, and this inexorably involves some abandonment of those who are well-disposed to America but are also targets of that hostility, including, ironically, many Muslims.
For example, President Obama initially refused to criticize the Iranian regime for its brutal response to popular demonstrations against the apparently fraudulent "election" of Ahmadinejad to a second term as Iranian president. Obama was more concerned with reaching out to Ahmadinejad. Only after being shamed into changing his stance did the President begin to offer some criticism of Iranian actions against anti-government demonstrators. It is very likely that if the Pew poll were extended to Iran, the Iranian people would also voice diminishing esteem for the United States.
Similarly, while Obama the candidate promised to give high priority to ending Sudan’s genocidal policies against the people of Darfur, Obama the President has focused on ingratiating himself with Sudan’s allies and has done nothing to alleviate the suffering in Darfur. Even some Obama advocates have publicly condemned his reneging on his pre-election promises vis-à-vis Darfur. Democratic operative and columnist Kirsten Powers published a piece on the issue entitled "‘Bam’s Darfur Sins." In contrast, President Bush led the way in drawing the world’s attention to Sudan’s murderous policies in Darfur and labeling it a genocide. It’s fair to guess that if the Pew poll were conducted in Darfur, there, too, it would find a decrease in people’s estimation of the United States.
As has been noted by many observers, President Obama has long been close to people harboring and promoting rabidly anti-Israel views, including - to name but a few - Rashid Khalidi, Reverend Wright, and Samantha Power. He’s appointed Power to a position on the National Security Council. It is not entirely surprising that he has demonstrated a willingness to initiate a public confrontation with Israel and to abandon U.S.-Israel agreements forged by previous administrations as he seeks to appease America’s - and Israel’s - enemies in the Muslim world. Nor have other steps by Obama favoring the positions of those dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state been very surprising.
FP: Some examples?
Levin: Take a look at elements of Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, where he suggested that Israel’s founding was a response to the Holocaust and failed to note the Jews’ more than 3,000-year connection with their ancestral homeland. He likewise said nothing of the fact that the modern international endorsement of recreation of the Jewish state dates to the post-World War I establishment of numerous national homelands as part of the breaking up of pre-war empires, including Arab homelands; or the fact that the Arabs allied themselves to European fascists in the 1930's and used the rise of Nazism to stymie the creation of the Jewish state. Obama essentially parroted Arab claims that, in Israel’s creation, the Arabs were being forced to pay a price for European crimes.
Also in his Cairo speech, Obama implicitly equated the Holocaust to Palestinian Arab displacement in the context of the war the Arabs initiated to destroy the nascent Jewish state - a morally obscene comparison.
FP: Ok., so let’s narrow in on the Israelis’ reaction. Give us some insight into how Israelis are resisting the bullying coming from Obama.
Levin: If we're talking about the general Israeli response, the polls are most significant as a measure of the change in Israeli opinion over the last decade and rejection of Obama's pressure.
President Obama has demanded a total freeze on all construction in whatever his Administration chooses to characterize as a "settlement." He has not only reneged on former Israel-U.S. agreements on the parameters of continued construction, particularly agreements reached between President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon, but has also lumped together all communities beyond the pre-1967 armistice line - unauthorized outposts, isolated settlements and major settlement blocs - as "illegitimate." He has indicated a rejection of President Bush's formally declared support for Israel's retention of large settlement blocs and does not appear to share the recognition by a number of former presidents of Israel's need for defensible borders.
The Smith Research poll in June that showed only 6% of Israelis viewing Obama as pro-Israel also showed 69% opposing a construction freeze in major settlement blocs. The poll demonstrated Israelis clearly making distinctions between, for example, unauthorized outposts and settlement blocs, that Obama has refused to make.
The Obama administration's subsequent highly publicized attacks on the eviction of some Arab families from Jewish-owned homes in east Jerusalem after they had stopped paying rent - evictions pursuant to a court order and not even involving the Netanyahu government - only broadened Israeli distrust of Obama. So too did the Administration's complaints about Jewish housing units being built in a Jewish-owned building in the Sheikh Jarrah section of Jerusalem.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his much anticipated speech at Bar Ilan University on June 14, elaborated a policy of insisting upon defensible borders for Israel, recognition of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, and opposition to a Palestinian so-called "right of return."
Netanyahu declared that, should the Palestinian Authority establish stable civil institutions and the rule of law, undertake, finally, to fight terror and end anti-Israel incitement - essentially the steps demanded of the Palestinians "at the outset" in the Roadmap - he was prepared to pursue a peace treaty. He offered to support a Palestinian state provided it is demilitarized, it is genuinely committed to peace with Israel, and the conditions under which it is established - including its demilitarization - are guaranteed by the international community.
According to a Haaretz-sponsored poll, 71% of Israelis supported the speech. This support spanned most of Israel's political spectrum. For example, in the wake of the speech, 49% of those polled who had voted in the last election for Kadima - now the main opposition party - favored Kadima joining Netanyahu's coalition.
On another matter, a May poll co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and the Begin-Sadat Center showed 66% of Israelis supporting military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. Of these, 75% said they would support such action even if the U.S. opposed it.
None of this discounts the great weight Israelis generally, including the present government, give to a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship and to the importance of Israel's working to promote and sustain that relationship. Polls of Israeli opinion leave no doubt on these points.
But the polls also demonstrate a more clear-sighted vision among Israelis of Israel's strategic circumstances and vital national interests, and wide support for the government's defending those interests even if that means resisting pressures coming from an American administration. The consensus is now against taking potentially suicidal steps to please others, including the Obama administration. The great majority of Israelis are not prepared to see Israel play Czechoslovakia to Obama's Neville Chamberlain.
Of course, this popular sentiment strengthens the government in its dealing with the Obama Administration. It allows it to make some concessions to reach compromises with the Administration but also provides support for the government's standing firm on issues of existential import. This is true with regard both to measures toward reaching agreements with the Palestinians and the wider Arab world and to a strategy for addressing the Iranian nuclear threat.
FP: Illuminate for us why so many Israelis have responded in this way.
Levin: The explanation lies largely in the evolution in Israeli political thinking over the past decade and the dramatic shift from the perspectives embraced by at least half the nation a decade earlier.
In the early 1990's large numbers of Israelis, worn down psychologically by the persistent Arab siege - the Arab refusal to recognize Israel and ongoing determination to destroy the Jewish state - chose to look away from such unpleasant realities and instead embrace delusions of Israeli control over the nation’s predicament vis-à-vis its neighbors. They embraced the delusion, despite all the evidence against it, that Arab hatred was actually due to past Israeli missteps and fault and that if Israel would only make sufficient amends, especially retreat to the pre-1967 armistice lines, then Arab hostility would be assuaged and peace would ensue. They insisted that Israel would then not need to concern itself with defensible borders as, in the context of peace, there would be nothing to defend against.
They rushed en masse to endorse the Oslo agreements and embrace arch-terrorist Yasser Arafat and his cadres as their "peace partners." On the September, 1993, evening after the signing of the initial Oslo accords on the White House lawn, Arafat declared in a broadcast to his Palestinian constituents and to the wider Arab world that they should understand Oslo as the first step in implementing the PLO’s 1974 plan. This was a reference to the "plan of phases," which called for taking whatever land could be gained by negotiations and using that territory as a base for pursuing Israel’s annihilation. But Israel’s Oslo enthusiasts ignored Arafat’s speech and celebrated the outbreak of "peace."
In the ensuing months, and more particularly after Arafat’s arrival in the territories, Israel suffered the worst level of terror attacks it had ever endured. Arafat openly praised those responsible for the terror. The Palestinian Authority used its media, mosques and schools to declare Israel’s existence illegitimate, teach Palestinian children they must devote themselves to the nation's destruction, and prepare the entire Palestinian population for incessant war against Israel. Still, half of Israel ignored all this and continued to focus its gaze on its rosy delusions.
FP: The turning point?
Levin: It was only in 2000, when Arafat and his associates rejected Israel’s dramatic concessions at Camp David, rejected as well President Clinton’s bridging proposals, refused to offer any counter-proposals and instead launched their terror war against Israel, that Oslo enthusiasts in large numbers began to free themselves from their erstwhile delusions. The numbers of the disabused grew as the terror war increased in viciousness, claiming more victims on buses, in restaurants, in markets and outside schools.
Still more abandoned their delusions when Israel unilaterally evacuated all its citizens and soldiers from Gaza and got in return intensified rocket and mortar attacks onto Israeli towns and villages near the Gaza border.
Today, the great majority of Israelis understand they have no "peace partner." They understand the agenda of Hamas, which explicitly declares in its charter, in its media, in its mosques, in its schools, its dedication not only to the annihilation of Israel but to the murder of all Jews, and daily seeks to translate its words into acts. They understand that so-called "moderate" Mahmoud Abbas, while talking at times of peace, makes clear to his own people and to those in the West who will listen that he and his Fatah movement will likewise not reconcile themselves to Israel’s existence. Rather, they will refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination and a Jewish state, will continue to insist on a "right of return" intended to overwhelm Israel and render it part of yet another Arab entity, will continue to praise murderers of Jews as heroes to be emulated, and will continue to educate Palestinian children on their obligation to dedicate themselves to Israel’s destruction.
There are, of course, still many Israelis who cling to their Oslo era delusions, people who still insist that sufficient Israeli concessions will somehow transform the Middle East. But their numbers have been reduced to a relatively small minority.
It is this that accounts for the overwhelmingly negative Israeli response to Obama’s abandonment of previous American-Israeli agreements and heavy-handed public pressure on Israel for unilateral concessions, and to his distortions of historical realities about the Arab-Israeli conflict as reflected in his Cairo speech. This is why a recent poll of Israeli opinion revealed that only 6% of Israeli Jews regard the Obama Administration as pro-Israel, and the Pew poll revealed a worsening image of the U.S. among Israelis.
That worsening image also reflects a reaction to Obama’s overarching tack of apologizing in foreign venues for America’s past policies and seeking to appease America’s enemies. Even aside from its direct relevance to the Arab-Israeli conflict or to the threat from Iran, this strategy can hardly comfort Israelis, the vast majority of whom regard a strong, confident United States as a vital, necessary force for good in the world. Moreover, Obama’s tack very much resembles the stance pursued by Israel when it embraced the delusions of Oslo, a stance which cost it so dearly and of which it has been so painfully disabused. Most Israelis today cannot respect, or trust, an American administration embracing similar delusions.
FP: Kenneth Levin, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.