Ian Lustick Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Coming to Terms with Israel: Conversation with Ian Lustick, Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania; 3/4/02 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by Jane Scherr

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U.S. Policy and the Israel - Palestine Conflict

What is the U.S. role in all of this? You've been in the government, you've thought about what our government does. Has our policy evolved appropriately as these circumstances have changed?

Our policy has not evolved appropriately. Our policy, in some sense, has stayed, in a formal way, more or less where it's always been, which is not a bad place. That is, officially, we believe that there ought to be a solution based on Resolution 242, which seems to suggest almost complete Israeli withdrawal from the territories, except for mutually agreed changes. Now, we're much more willing than we ever were before to express the sentiment that that ultimately will mean a Palestinian state. What we have not done is change the pattern of being active and then backing away from it, active and engaged, and then backing away from it. We've done so many of those minuets, where it looks like the United States is going to engage, and then political forces in the United States emerge or other international issues emerge which distract the attention of the elites, or an election comes up, or a new Israeli policy is implemented which provokes violence on the Arab side and destroys the context for the American initiative. Repeatedly. I have seen this movie dozens and dozens of times, and I'm seeing it again now. So although sometimes you will get an effective, discrete, short intervention, whether it was President Carter or the first President Bush, it doesn't usually last long enough to help bring the parties to an agreement in the end. It's interesting that Oslo occurred not under American tutelage, but independent of that.

It's a matter of the United States not being able to escape the logic of its own political system. That logic requires countervailing force. Everybody in the United States is familiar with Madison and the Federalist Papers, where we're all told, "Go out and get what you want ruthlessly, because everybody else is going to do that." And it's okay, because what will come out of that will be that the government won't be able to do too much, so it won't make lots of big mistakes. Only when everybody agrees, amazingly enough, will a little something get done. But, basically, the idea is, don't make big mistakes. That was Madison's and the founding fathers' message, and that's what we do [domestically].

In foreign policy, you get people into the government who are trained to think that way: "If you can get it, go after it." But in foreign policy, there's no countervailing force, there's no other lobby that pushes the other way. That makes it much more interesting for presidents to operate in foreign policy, because they don't get pushed around as much. But it also means that if they use the same inclinations that drive them inside the country, they tend to make bigger mistakes and only learn about the consequences years later, as in Vietnam.

It usually doesn't matter that much because Americans don't care that much about foreign policy. But when you have one group in the country that cares a tremendous amount about one issue, like the Israel lobby in this country, then the government responds to that in an unproductive and irrational way. So it is not a coincidence that we can give $3 billion a year in aid to Israel for decades, and say that it was because of the Cold War, and Israel was our strategic asset, a land-based aircraft carrier -- $3 billion a year. And then the Cold War ends, completely disappears, what happens to the amount of aid? Absolutely nothing. So what was the rationale for it? It had nothing to do with the Cold War. The rationale had to do with representation of a set of political interests.

The U.S. government only escapes from that in times of severe crises. When a president feels he doesn't have anything to lose, he can stand up to the Israel lobby. For example, during the Yom Kippur War, when Kissinger was told by Nixon, "Impose a comprehensive peace. Negotiate between Jordan and Israel." And in his memoirs, Kissinger says Nixon said, "Because I'm twisting in the wind with Watergate, I don't need the Jews anymore anyway." In his memoirs, Kissinger says, "I'm proud ... " he's proud, he says, "I didn't follow this instruction, because it would give the Soviets a victory diplomatically, which they didn't deserve." Not because he didn't think this would actually bring peace to the Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, in the Afghan War, we saw that right after 9/11, the Bush administration went into the mode that administrations go into when there's a real crises and they need multilateral support, including the Middle East, which is to talk about Palestine, energize the U.S. policy, start talking about a two-state solution, really indicate to the Israelis that they're going to have to finally play ball. As soon as the bombing of the Taliban seemed to destroy their ability to fight, the idea that we didn't need the Muslims, and we weren't destabilizing Pakistan, things were going well, all of that rhetoric was set aside and we went back to the unilateralism and to cheerleading for whatever government is in Israel, which is basically what Condoleezza Rice and company are doing now.

What about the Clinton proposals, and that whole effort? Was it a serious departure from the formula you just described?

Clinton was more knowledgeable than anyone since Carter, but Carter's problem was that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crises completely distracted him from the Arab-Israeli conflict That meant that very high-level attention was lost and the Begin government was able to manipulate us.

Clinton became very engaged, but he also became infatuated with certain people in Israel, like Barak, and didn't understand how he was being played by them. Clinton also, uncharacteristically, made serious tactical mistakes at Camp David, such that he played into the hands of those on the Palestinian side who argued that the United States was being Israel's lawyer. He literally went to the Palestinians and said, "This is the American position," when the position he presented them was exactly the Israeli position that had been secretly transmitted to the Palestinians. So he delegitmized his own position.

It's not surprising at all that Camp David, itself, failed. This was just one attempt, but the first attempt to negotiate the really difficult issues. It would have been amazing if it had succeeded. But we know from the subsequent negotiations at Taba between Israelis and Palestinians, where the United States was not present, though there were European observers, that Barak abandoned many of the ultimatums he had issued, and the Israelis and Palestinians came to a position that was, they say, within two to three months of an agreement. book coverAs a matter of fact, and here's where Clinton's lasting contribution lay: in January he gave an important speech listing the parameters, what are called the Clinton parameters, of what the deal is going to eventually be between the Israelis and Palestinians. These are the parameters of a deal which cognoscenti [have known] for quite awhile, ten years; but the United States government had never laid it out. And here he was laying it out, that is what is called in political science a Schelling point, the focal point, this is where the obvious compromises are on all the issues, from Jerusalem to refugees, to borders, to settlement. And the Taba negotiations came out very close to those. When negotiations start, they're going to inevitably return to the Clinton parameters.

All of this failed, initially, because of the Palestinian response; but then the change in government of Israel. Looking at what you have written, one gets the sense that this result could have been expected because of the stalemate in Israeli democracy, that the right was incapable of imposing a fundamentalist view, but the left had no alternative, given the failure of the negotiations in Washington.

If we look at it more broadly, in the book I wrote, Unsettled States, I tried to solve this question of whether the point of no return had been passed. I feel that I did by looking at it not in terms of one point of no return -- either it's impossible or it's possible -- but to two thresholds. If you want to keep all the territories in Israel, you have to make the issue of what to do with them disappear, and to establish what is called the hegemony of the idea of the greater Land of Israel. That's impossible for reasons that we've already discussed. Israel can't go past that threshold. But in order to get out, you have to risk a civil war in Israel, you have to risk the fact that groups, including the settlers and the right-wing parties, feel so strongly opposed to withdrawal that they will attack the government, they will try to assassinate the leadership. They will try to engineer disobedience in the army and the public at large. They will resist violently. Someone in the government has to act. Every time the government has tried to negotiate a peace, they've come up against that threat, and they've drawn back. So Israel is caught between the inability to make the issue disappear by making the West Bank look like Israel, and the inability to make it disappear by actually withdrawing, by getting through that regime barrier, that regime threshold.

Some day, one of these days, that regime threshold is going to be crossed. I like to think of it as a kind of gambler throwing dice, except it's history that's throwing the dice. Every throw of the dice is like a diplomatic peace process attempt. In order to actually succeed, history has got to throw snake eyes, 2. And, you know, that's not easy, you have to keep throwing the dice. Eventually, you're going to throw a 2. All of the leadership questions and accidents of history, the passions of both sides, the torturous feelings of suffering, the political coalitions, the timing of elections will fall into place. But if you're on the other side and you want the West Bank and Gaza to remain permanently under Israeli rule, you will have to roll a 13. But you can't roll a 13, which is to say that the right has no plan for how it can successfully keep the territories anymore. They don't even advocate as a realistic option expelling the Palestinians. So they have no plan. So if you are the right and you know you have to roll a 13, the strategy is, don't let the dice get rolled, keep trying to stop every initiative and subvert it if it gets started.

At a very ugly tactical level, that's why every time Anthony Zinni, the U.S. representative to the peace process, gets sent to the Middle East, more Hamas leaders get assassinated by Israel, or there's an invasion of a refugee camp. The invasion of the refugee camps in Balata and Jenin, which we've been seeing recently that caused so much violence, was directly linked to the Saudi peace initiative, to try to prick that bubble by shifting the political atmosphere around it into an exploding pattern of violence. That's what you do, it's the only rational thing to do in order to prevent history from eventually producing what it will produce, which is a two-state solution.

Now, what sort of changes do there have to be in the United States with regard to Israel that would contribute to this process of rolling snake eyes?

Well, there are two things. One is that the public discourse has to be enriched, so that fewer people are afraid to criticize an Israeli government. People in the Israeli lobby have often said that the U.S. media is prejudiced against Israel, that they blow up every single little event and they hardly criticize the Arabs. [But] when I talk to people and distribute information, I never use reports in the American press, because the reports in the American press are too slanted toward a pro-Israel position. I only use Israeli newspaper accounts, Jewish Israeli Hebrew accounts. If those were published in the United States and known, that's all the information you need. So one thing is a discussion that would be formed by what Israelis are saying about the situation.

The other thing is that people who get installed in the bureaucratically important positions, in the Pentagon, in the CIA, in the State Department, in the National Security Council, are drawn from a pool that is anxious to cover their future political careers. That means steering clear of controversial positions on Arab-Israeli relations, and controversial in the United States means things that are not toeing the Israel lobby line.

Those two things have to change. They're related, obviously, but they both have to change.

Next page: Lessons Learned

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