The Obama administration’s planned “pivot” to Asia and the about-face back to the Cold War with Russia may be today’s foreign-policy focus. But just like every post-9/11 year, 2014 may be marked (or marred) by events in the Mideast. Central to the regional results will be the relationship between Israel and the United States — the topic of this month’s Minnesota International Center “Great Decisions” dialogue.
Both nations are involved in shaping strategies regarding Iran, Syria, Palestine — and, in the process, each other. Giving context to these complexities is an influential book, “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel.” Its author, Israeli columnist and commentator Ari Shavit, was in the Twin Cities last Sunday. In an interview, he addressed the region and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
At the center of this relationship is Secretary of State John Kerry, whose relentless shuttle diplomacy between Israeli and Palestinian leaders has surprised some Israelis with its intensity. “Something came out of him that is quite striking,” Shavit said. “He’s managed to push Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu much further than we anticipated with a combination of sticks, carrots and EQ [emotional intelligence]. He must do the same with Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas.”
But Shavit cautioned that to succeed, Kerry needs to truly understand the “deep, long and bitter conflict” and each side of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, as well as the split within Israel.
“I oppose settlements, but the conflict is not about settlements,” Shavit said. “The conflict is about the mutual blindness of us to see that there is a Palestinian people there, and for them to see there is a Jewish people that has a history and legitimate rights and claims in the land.”
Shavit said there are two dynamics driving what he calls “the Israeli condition” — occupation and intimidation. “Many peace-loving people, mostly associated on the left, focus on occupation and overlook intimidation, while the people on the right, in this country and other countries, focus on intimidation and overlook occupation. We all have to wrestle with the complexity of the two elements.”
This includes Kerry, who Shavit said has to convince Israelis that “he knows what our world is all about,” including Syria, whose vicious disintegration tells a lot about the brutality of the region.
It also includes Iran, whose potential nuclear weapons program is what Netanyahu — and Shavit — consider Israel’s gravest threat. And yet Shavit thinks the binary narrative is miscast.
“The mistake done by Israel and by some others is to make it an Israeli issue and make it a Benjamin Netanyahu issue,” Shavit said. In fact, Shavit believes it transcends the Mideast and should also be an issue in the Midwest: “It’s true that it might have an impact in Tel Aviv before it has an impact in Minneapolis and St. Paul — but it will have an impact in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Iran is relevant to your readers.”
Shavit’s fear isn’t of a superpower-triggered nuclear apocalypse, but of a Mideast nuclear arms race that raises the risk of nuclear 9/11s. “If Iran goes nuclear, the genie will be out of the bottle and the 21st century will be about nuclear horror.”
This legitimate fear is shared in Washington. But Beltway bipartisanship on Israel is as elusive as it is on other issues, which worries Shavit. “Israel must be a bipartisan issue in this country. Israeli leaders cannot be associated with one party and be perceived as threatening another party. There is a deep intimacy and a deep bond between the great American democracy and the frontier democracy Israel is. We do have shared democratic values. We are both dynamic immigrant societies with a sense of mission and morality, and there are striking similarities between us.”
This “deep bond” is being questioned by some influential voices who are pushing for a boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
“People playing with this BDS thinking are morally wrong and playing with fire,” Shavit said, adding, “If, God forbid, they succeed and Israel is perceived as weak, they will break Israel’s neck and the implications will be catastrophic.” Instead, Shavit urges encouraging Israeli moderates “to do the right thing. … We want you to prosper and succeed.”
In fact, Shavit believes that in both nations there is a longing for a return to this kind of American engagement and encouragement and that this sentiment might be behind the success of “My Promised Land.”
“Of course, personally, it’s gratifying,” Shavit said about the acclaim for and impact of his book, which has superseded sound-bite debates on Israel. “But I think it’s something larger than the book and myself.”
“I wrote my own truth; I made all my mistakes with all my heart. … Ironically, what happened, apparently, is I led many of these same people to identify with Israel in a new way and enabled them to love Israel in a critical, moral way. So while dealing with its flaws, with its sins, with its wrinkles, this book is a love story.”
And the next consequential chapters are cliffhangers, as diplomatic outcomes on Iran and the Mideast peace process will significantly impact Israel as well as the United States.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. on Friday on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “ Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.