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The Perils of American Incrementalism

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The pro-Israel peace camp in the U.S., my camp, has been content to settle for incremental American diplomacy. We've rallied around the Obama team and its call for freezing settlements, for small but friendly policy changes from the Arab states, for "confidence-building" measures. That incremental approach didn't work in the 1990s, but we are hoping beyond hope that somehow it will work this time, and that this American administration knows what it is doing.

But Jimmy Carter, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft want no part of this piecemeal diplomacy. In videotaped interviews with Landrum Bolling that are being promoted and distributed by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, they urge the U.S. to be more ambitious. All of them want the U.S. to find a way to talk to Hamas. Scowcroft and Brzezinski urge the U.S to delineate precisely what the final agreement should look like. "The President needs to step up and say,`This is an American proposal,'" Scowcroft asserts. "Outline the parameters...Change the ballgame."

Three of these men (not Scowcroft) have been reviled for many years by the Israeli right and its supporters here. That is reason enough to take what they say seriously.

Philip Wilcox, ex-diplomat and President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, also should be taken seriously. He has been watching incrementalism fail for decades. His group opposes the emphasis on freezing settlements and he favors Evacuation Now, before it's too late. As his right hand man Geoffrey Aronson writes in the Foundation's latest newsletter:

As long as the diplomatic focus remains limited to a settlement freeze, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will remain within his comfort zone. Netanyahu would prefer to discuss and debate ad nauseum the finer points of settlement expansion, construction perimeters and the like -- a contest Israel has always won -- than to address the more fundamental issues of borders, settlement evacuation, security measures, Jerusalem, and refugees, which must be resolved to achieve a two-state solution...

...[There] will be a diplomatic "opportunity cost" if the settlement freeze debate is prolonged, and the issues of borders, settlement evacuation, and Palestinian sovereignty are deferred.

In Sunday's Haaretz, for similar reasons, Zvi Bar'el also comes down hard on the Obamanauts:

As long as the U.S. administration does not present a comprehensive plan that explains its endgame - what the end will look like and what the shape and character of the Palestinian state will look like - the demand for a cessation of construction is pointless...The demand to freeze settlement construction is like the demand to remove roadblocks or cease razing homes; all these demands and similar ones mean only one thing: making the continuation of the occupation a little more pleasant...

What do these arguments portend for the pro-Israel peace camp in America (J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, etc)? We have focused on justifying the administration's insistence on steps that, in the grand scheme of things, are very small. Some very wise men are telling us that we are wasting a lot of energy, much like the Obama administration. It is time to ponder carefully what they are saying, and to evaluate the wisdom of retaining a blind, hopeful faith in this administration's Middle East policies, and of reflexively supporting whatever it wants us to support.

Originally posted, in different form, on Realistic Dove