Note to Leslie Gelb: Could You Be Any More Unhelpful to Secretary Clinton?
I was going to put up a post about this yesterday. I actually wrote a post then deleted it- I do that a lot actually. Most of the time it’s a good thing, particularly when I am annoyed about something and start typing away- it’s kind of the blogging equivalent of “think before you speak.” But now that I re-read Leslie Gelb’s post over at the Daily Beast, I’ve decided to write this.
For those who aren’t familiar with Gelb, among other things he is the president emeritus of the influential Council on Foreign Relations. For some reason that isn’t quite clear to me, he moonlights over at the Daily Beast. He has been frequently quoted as saying some complimentary things about Secretary Clinton and he has also been frequently quoted (along with the likes of Aaron David Miller) as bemoaning the fact that while Secretary Clinton is a good SOS, she’s not “of the caliber” of Kissinger or Baker– as if every damn SOS has to be a carbon copy of those two. Gelb also apparently has a long history with the Clintons, so I am not trying to imply some grudge or animus is at play. Gelb also appears to have been a foreign policy adviser to Clinton at some point during her campaign.
Anyway, Gelb wrote a commentary which was rather dismissive of Secretary Clinton’s efforts last weekto help negotiate Mideast peace:
Maybe Hillary Clinton, Washington’s current flavor of the month, knows something the rest of us don’t know. Perhaps the much-heralded secretary of State and the administration’s other Middle East expert, President Obama, have received promises or bankable hints from Israeli and Palestinian leaders that they are prepared to make major compromises. You wouldn’t think the two American leaders would risk the prestige and power of the United States of America on yet another effort to reconcile these two blood enemies without good grounds for doing so, would you?
The real danger between these two star-crossed inhabitants of the same Holy Land is not failure to negotiate; it’s the failure of the negotiations. Flashpoints in the Holy Land tend to burst after they sit down at the negotiating table, give their speeches, fail to agree, and watch the process collapse. That is when the explosions begin. That is when Palestinian terrorism reignites in Israel. People tend to resort to violence when their hopes and expectations are dashed formally and frontally, not when they are merely hoping.
During the last couple of years, while negotiations have been decidedly on the backburner, Israel has been almost entirely free from terrorist attacks emanating from the Palestinian West Bank. Palestinian and Israeli security forces now work together to keep the peace in many West Bank cities, and Palestinian leaders even acknowledge this publicly. There’s also intelligence cooperation between the two sides. All of that could go up in smoke if these talks fail. Indeed, terrorists are likely to shed Israeli and perhaps even Palestinian blood in order to make the talks fail. So, staging a big, formal negotiating session at the seductive and languid Red Sea port of Sharm el-Sheikh is a very risky enterprise…unless Hillary knows something we don’t.
Here’s what the formidable secretary told reporters on Wednesday: “They [the Palestinians and Israelis] are getting down to business and they have begun to grapple with the core issues that can only be resolved through face-to-face negotiations.” For good measure, she added, “I believe they are serious about reaching an agreement that results in two states living side by side in peace and security.”
Why such confidence? Many officials tell me that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel nor President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority came close to giving Mr. Obama any specific indications of compromise in their White House meetings two weeks ago. In other words, neither offered any concrete basis for accommodation. They spoke only of being serious and bargaining in good faith, the usual stuff. Nor did either leader push Mr. Obama into these talks; Mr. Obama pushed them. Netanyahu wasn’t eager for talks at all, and Abbas favored them only with good and prior indications of success.
Now, one of the biggest hurdles to success—in fact, a big fat wall of failure—will confront them within two weeks.
The Israeli hawk understands full well, though he doesn’t like it, that he must burnish and safekeep ties with America. For the time being, that requires good ties with Mr. Obama, whom Netanyahu and his fellow hawks don’t like very much. To them, Mr. Obama sounded too pro-Arab in his first years in office, and they don’t have much trust in him.[emphasis mine]
Ok, first of all, “flavor of the month?” That is just totally unnecessary. Leslie Gelb has every right to disagree with the policies being promoted but does he have to be so condescending and dismissive? Maybe he’s trying to appeal to the Daily Beast crowd rather than the CFR crowd. But such rhetoric does nothing to help advance his viewpoint. Oh, and would he refer to his pals Kissinger and Baker as the “flavor of the month?”
Also, while I respect Gelb’s vast foreign policy experience and his previous service to this country in several different administrations, I can’t help but notice that all he is doing in this commentary is beating a dead horse. Does he really think that Secretary Clinton and President Obama don’t understand the risks involved if these talks fail? Does he really think they don’t understand what is at stake? Yes, actually they do, which is exactly why Secretary Clinton has gone out on such a very thin limb- as she has said repeatedly, she understands that time is running out and that the status quo simply cannot continue. She also understands that peace will not be achieved unless everyone, the US included, takes risks for peace. And finally, the United States is not just some sideline superpower trying to force its will randomly on two groups of people- we have legitimate financial and security interests at stake- financial because we give billions of dollars to both the Israelis and Palestinians and security because the seemingly never-ending Arab Israeli conflict is the source of so much resentment and instability in the region- a region we are heavily invested in in terms of both blood and treasure.
I know a lot of neocons don’t like to admit that the ongoing Occupation continues to undermine US security interests and US foreign policy goals, politically strengthens Iran and groups like Hezbollah and is [one of] the sources of growing anti-American sentiment, but the fact is, all of the above is true. As a result, we can’t just sit back and wait another decade for Israel and the Palestinians to do what should have been done a long time ago. Soon there won’t be enough land left for a Palestinian state and if current population trends continue there will be an Arab majority in Greater Israel.
My beef with Leslie Gelb, in addition to his condescending tone, is that he offers nothing but negativity and the oft-repeated conventional wisdom. Does he have any constructive advice? I totally understand why people are frustrated and cynical- usually these negotiations end with disappointment and violence, as Gelb rightly points out. But that is not a reason to simply throw up our hands and wait until both the Israelis and the Palestinians magically decide to put aside all their differences and make love not war. Because it’s not going to happen. No, the US can’t force peace on the region, nor can we force a solution, but we can let both sides know that the US is not going to prop up both sides forever (economically or otherwise) and that both Israel and the Palestinians bear some responsibility for the foreseesable consequences of perpetuating an unsustainable status quo. The sad fact is, many in the U.S. seem to have become complacent- we have become very used to the occupation, particularly given violence in Israel is down. This complacency is unacceptable. I think that some in the U.S. don’t want to confront the difficult concessions that BOTH sides will have to make and so it’s much easier to kick the can further down the road and to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, finger-point and claim that failure is all but assured. This sort of conventional wisdom is part of the reason that we still find ourselves having to deal with this problem.
Gelb warns us that the failure of these talks could be disastrous. More disastrous than doing nothing? What he fails to note is that the Beltway chattering classes, the Think Tank opinionaters, the members of Congress and the powerful lobbying groups in the US all have a role to play in helping the US, Israel and the Palestinians work towards resolving the crisis. It’s simply not helpful for people like Gelb and Aaron David Miller to just sit on the sidelines and engage in naysaying and pearl-clutching.