Monday, August 31, 2009

American and Israel

Ira Sharkansky
Sent: Saturday, August 29, 2009 10:35 AM

When I was at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during 1968-75, I occasionally spoke out against anti-war students and faculty colleagues. I also learned the smell of tear gas, as it was impossible to avoid the mass demonstrations and the responses of police and National Guard. At the same time, I was lecturing several times a year to junior officers at military bases in the United States and overseas. Numerous students came to class while on leave from Vietnam. One of them had earned a Congressional Medal of Honor. My topic was domestic policymaking, in the framework of an MA program in public administration, but there were conversations about other things.

I do not recall just when I turned against Vietnam. I still think there was justification, in the context of the time, in making a forceful statement against expanding Communism. I knew it was a confused situation, with corruption in the South and perhaps as much national liberation as Communism per se in the Vietcong and those who supported them. The results were not worth 58,000 American deaths and many more broken lives.

In Vietnam, more than Korea, we saw a dynamic of war and politics that kept the thing going far beyond the point of utility. I fear the same for Afghanistan. I have no doubt that 9-11 justified a hard blow against the Taliban. But controlling Afghanistan and seeking to reform that country? It is one of the least governable places on earth.

What the United States has lacked is another Dwight Eisenhower, who knew the costs and limitations of combat, got out of Korea, and stayed out of Vietnam and most other places. Colin Powell expressed something similar: do not enter a conflict except with the intention of using the force necessary to succeed, define goals clearly, and do not stay longer than necessary. His advice prevailed more in Iraq I than Iraq II, and not in Afghanistan.

Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama are anything close to Eisenhower or Powell.

I have been in Israel since 1975. I was drafted at the age of 42 and spent 10 years as a reservist in the lecture corps., talking about public policy to support personnel and fighters throughout Israel, in Gaza, the West Bank and Lebanon. Here I have sharpened my perception of the United States as an arrogant and naive meddler in areas that its leadership and military do not understand.

Israel has been led by individuals who have shown something of what motivated Eisenhower and Powell. It has also learned from its own mistakes. Unlike Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan, and earlier Israeli efforts in Lebanon, current thinking among the Israeli leadership is to strike hard in response to aggression, and not to remain as an occupying force. Lebanon II was more successful than Lebanon I, and even more successful was the recent conflict in Gaza. Neither played well on international television, but both were less costly for all sides than either Iraq or Afghanistan. And despite the heroic claims of victory by Hizbollah and Hamas, Israel's border areas have been quiet since those operations.

Shimon Peres was not a military person, but heavily involved in the development of Israel's nuclear option. Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, and Ariel Sharon were military professionals who became successful politicians. Each has a well documented record of success on the battlefield, and--along with Shimon Peres--later achievements in withdrawing from conflict. Peres and Rabin tried peace with the Oslo Accords of 1993. Barak made the controversial decision to withdraw unilaterally from a "security zone" in southern Lebanon, and Sharon tried to break a stalemate by withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza. Former head of the general staff Amnon Lipton-Shahak is another military figure who entered politics on the left, and became one of the leaders of the Geneva Initiative. This has not gone far, but was meant to join non-governmental Israelis and Palestinians in a draft that might provide the basis of a peace agreement.

Eisenhower could stop the fighting a half world away from his White House, and work to avoid conflicts in other distant places. Israelis who might be compared to him have a more difficult task. Palestine is across the street. Israeli citizens who identify as Palestinians comprise 20 percent of the population. Other Palestinians demand a right of return, and individuals who claim leadership of Palestine claim part or all of what Israelis call their country.

Neither Eisenhower nor Powell would be useful here. Israelis are learning by themselves how to deal with their problem. No doubt Jimmy Carter helped at Camp David, but lately has been more of a nuisance than facilitator. The engager Barack Obama may have good intentions, but only 4 percent of Israeli Jews view him as supportive. An earlier poll showed that 6 percent of Israeli Jews viewed Obama as supportive. The drop of two percent follows what Americans say have been efforts to improve their relations with Israel.

The American president should attend to Washington, do something better in Iraq and Afghanistan, show whatever mettle he has in Iran, and leave us alone.

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University

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