U.S. Coercion of Israel Will Create More Problems Than It Solves


Last week my PolicyMic colleague Nathan Lean rebuked President Barack Obama’s call for Israeli-Palestinian border negotiations to be based on the 1967 boundaries. Lean argues that Obama did not go far enough to resolve the current impasse between the parties, and offered a radically different recommendation: The U.S. should threaten to “cut substantially” its military aid to Israel in order to provide a “catalyst” that coerces a solution to the conflict.

To the casual observer, Lean’s strategy appears to be ostensibly reasonable – pressure Israel in order to coerce a solution. Realistically, however, it is riddled with fallacious assumptions that will only exacerbate the current stalemate, endangering American interests in the region. For that reason, it should be dismissed entirely from being considered a viable American policy.

As evidence of the supposed efficacy of his strategy, Lean asserts that the U.S. has successfully applied “coercion” in the past, primarily to “pay off” the Egyptian government with an annual military aid package to make peace with Israel. In reality, this only demonstrates that Lean is confusing American carrots with American sticks. In the case of Egypt, the combination of Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula and the annual U.S. military aid package – the American carrots – induced Egypt to conclude a peace agreement. However, this strategy is the diametrical opposite of the slashes in security aid – the American sticks – which Lean advocates to take against Israel, with the explicit purpose of compelling it. In one case, the advancement of aid is bestowed to induce cooperative behavior; in the other, its reduction is leveraged for coercion. It is precisely this stark difference that makes these two scenarios incomparable, and why they will produce exactly opposite results.

In the Israel case, Lean has not considered how the contours of Israeli domestic politics directly impact the government’s traction on the peace process. By slashing aid to Israel, the U.S. would only bolster the narrative of Israel's far right-wing block which opposes a two-state solution. A significant cut in aid – even the mere threat of it – would worsen the ingrained security ethos and paranoia of the Israeli electorate. This paranoia is built on the notion that Jews cannot rely on anyone other than themselves to survive in a region bent on their destruction –   not even on their sworn American ally –   and has been leveraged by Israel's far right for years.

The Israeli electorate would thus swing even further to the right, eschew peacemaking leaders, and bolster reactionary parties that are completely exasperated with the peace process such as Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. This is precisely why Lean’s assumption that slashes in security aid will coerce Israel to make concessions is wrong, and is ultimately shortsighted in its vision. Such a move will only empower Israeli hardliners, weaken its moderates, and exacerbate the very stalemate it seeks to resolve.

Furthermore, by only recommending cutting aid to the Jewish state, Lean wrongfully presumes that the burden of peacemaking falls solely on Israel's shoulders, and that it is Israel’s intransigence that created the contemporary stalemate. It is true that Israel has committed its own handful of blunders on the peace process, mainly by failing to curb the West Bank settlement movement. Nonetheless, the bottom line is that not a single Arab country – including those that have peace agreements with Israel – has shown any significant leadership in integrating the Jewish state into the broader regional community. Such a deficit in initiative greatly diminishes Israelis' confidence that peace is tangible and realizable.

Secondly, while Lean is quick to call for the precipitous reduction in aid to Israel, he does not even broach the subject of readjusting the annual American aid package to the Palestinian government; a government that chose to unite with Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group that vehemently rejects both a negotiated two-state solution and Israel’s very existence. Thus Lean's strategy does not address some of the most significant factors that are perpetuating the stalemate or promote flexibility on behalf of the Palestinians, who continue to cling to their maximalist positions across all issues.

Ultimately, reducing Israeli military aid is not the answer that will bring about a durable and viable peace in the region. Rather, a pragmatic strategy that addresses both Israel’s real security needs and the legitimate right for Palestinian self-determination is necessary. Obama’s call for border negotiations to be based on the 1967 lines – “with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states” – is a constructive first step. Moving forward, the United States will have to demonstrate the dexterity and flexibility required to conclude an agreement, and not entertain myopic policy solutions that create more problems than they resolve.

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