Why Has Bill Clinton Gone ‘Jimmy Carter’ On Israel?
Former President Bill Clinton — a favorite both in Israel, and amongst pro-Israel supporters here in the US — recently made an abrupt shift in his public statements on Israel, breaking completely from the dominant ‘neo-conservative, inner-beltway’ narrative on US foreign policy in the Middle East.
First, Clinton created an uproar in the Israeli government when he took aim at the Israel Defense Forces, and in particular the extreme elements that make up an increasing number of those serving:
“An increasing number of the young people in the IDF (Israel Defense Force) are the children of Russians and settlers, the hardest-core people against a division of the land. This presents a staggering problem,” Clinton said. “It’s a different Israel. Sixteen percent of Israelis speak Russian.” […]
Clinton called the Russian immigrant population in Israel the group least interested in a peace deal with the Palestinians. “They’ve just got there, it’s their country, they’ve made a commitment to the future there,” Clinton said. “They can’t imagine any historical or other claims that would justify dividing it.”
The former president added that those who have been in Israel the longest and “have the benefit of historical context” were those most supportive of peace in Israel. “They can imagine sharing a future,” he said.
Clinton added that he feared this growing extremist element within the IDF would make it very difficult for Israel to deal with the half-million illegal settlers in the West Bank — something essential for any future peace agreement with the Palestinians.
As one might expect, this statement provoked a sharp rebuttal from Israel’s far-right Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose core supporters happen to be these same extremist — often Russian — settlers. He accused Clinton of meddling in Israel’s internal affairs. Benjamin Netanyahu — trying to downplay the controversy — stated he “regretted” Clinton’s statement. MK Lia Shemtov (Yisrael Beitenu), chairperson of the Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs, actually went on the offensive. Shemtov accused Clinton of having once provided Palestinian terrorists with rifles that lead to the deaths of Russian Jewish settlers, and demanded that he apologize.
So it was quite a shock to learn that after the fall-out from his first statement, Bill Clinton lobbed an even larger bomb shell at Israel. This time he blamed much of the world’s terrorism on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict:
“It will take about half the impetus in the whole world — not just the region, the whole world — for terror away,” he told an audience of Egyptian businessmen from the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. “It would have more impact by far than anything else that could be done.”
Clinton — as both Vice President Joe Biden and General David Petraeus had done last March — linked the necessity for a Middle East peace agreement with the strategic interests of the United States of America (proclaiming it to be the very cornerstone of our battle against global terrorism). This is a HUGE rhetorical shift for the former President.
The former President’s comments should not be taken lightly. Not only is his wife, Hillary Clinton, serving as Secretary of State, he is a seasoned politician who devoted much energy and time to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict during his eight year term. He understands better than anyone the political ramifications in America for criticizing Israel publicly. It’s considered a faux pas for any American politician to suggest that the strategic interests of the United States are not identical to Israel’s, much less that Israeli policies are risking American lives.
Hillary Clinton, while serving as US Senator from New York and while running as a 2008 Presidential Candidate, never once dared to stray from the AIPAC-boilerplate narrative with regards to Israel. Last March, however, after Israel announced a resumption of illegal settlement expansions, Secretary of State Clinton rebuked Netanyahu in a telephone call . She was reported to have told him that “this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.” But after intense pressure from the Israel Lobby, the Administration backed away completely from this line of messaging. So why is Bill Clinton all of a sudden exorcising it from the grave?
The Obama Administration knows too well that each side of this conflict literally hangs onto every word uttered by an American President, past or present, but especially when an ex-President happens to be married to the current Secretary of State.
Haaretz reported that the Obama Administration is “incensed” with the Israeli government for not agreeing to extend the settlement moratorium in exchange for “unprecedented U.S. political and security assistance”:
Senior American officials said they were frustrated by Netanyahu’s conduct in the affair. “We’re not buying the excuse of political difficulties anymore,” a senior U.S. official told his Israeli counterpart.
“The Americans said Netanyahu’s conduct is humiliating the president,” said a senior European diplomat who met with senior U.S. officials in New York last week.
Madame Secretary Clinton and Middle East Envoy George J. Mitchell are still pressing Israel to extend its now-lapsed moratorium. So was Bill Clinton — who just polled as the most popular politician in America — tasked with laying the groundwork for a potential US policy shift? His statements would obviously be reported world-wide and generate the appropriate controversy, thus guaranteeing the attention of both American and Israeli politicians and press — all without directly implicating the current Democratic Administration just before midterm elections.
One thing is for certain: it will be impossible for Bill Clinton (and extremely difficult for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) to walk back his statement — blaming the absence of a Middle East peace agreement as the main impetus for world terrorism. It will also be impossible for the Obama Administration (or even the voices of the Israel Lobby, for that matter) to convince anybody that Israel is not 100% responsible for intentionally sabotaging the current peace talks.
According to Bill Clinton’s statement, this would logically leave the US and Israel at a strategic impasse — that being Israeli intransigence in forging peace remains the major cause of worldwide terrorism, thereby threatening the lives of US citizens and US troops.
Which begs the obvious question: how should the United States respond when an ally’s intransigence poses a grave threat to US national security?
Israel’s Dahiya Doctrine Undermines Its ‘Collateral Damage’ Claims In Gaza
It’s been a full year since Israel unleashed ‘Operation Cast Lead’ against the people of Gaza, leaving 1,400 dead (mostly civilians). Israel and Egypt continue to blockade the 1.5 million inhabitants confined within the war-torn ghetto, restricting the flow of food, fuel, and other essential items, and thus making reconstruction and recovery virtually impossible.
The Guardian reports:
There is no uncontaminated water [in Gaza]; of the 40,000 or so newborn babies, at least half are at immediate risk of nitrate poisoning – incidence of “blue baby syndrome”, methaemoglobinaemia, is exceptionally high; an unprecedented number of people have been exposed to nitrate poisoning over 10 years; in some places the nitrate content in water is 300 times World Health Organisation standards; the agricultural economy is dying from the contamination and salinated water; the underground aquifer is stressed to the point of collapse; and sewage and waste water flows into public spaces and the aquifer.
Israel purposely destroyed Palestinian farmlands with tank bulldozers, wrecking 17% of it, and leaving 30% of it unusable.
Virtually none of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure has been rebuilt since the military escalation a year ago (as building materials have largely been denied entry from Israel’s blockade). The Irish Times reports that:
Some 15,000 homes were damaged or destroyed during the offensive, displacing 100,000 Palestinians.
The UN estimates 3,450 homes need to be rebuilt, 2,870 homes require major reconstruction, and 52,000 need minor repairs.
The blockade has closed down 98 per cent of Gaza’s industries, while Israel’s offensive destroyed or damaged 700 private businesses, at a cost of $139 million. The war devastated agriculture, electricity and water purification and sanitation plants, health facilities and schools.
John Ging, director of operations in Gaza for UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, told the Guardian at the time of the military incursion, when the IDF repeatedly shelled civilian structures (including UN facilities):
Under international law, installations such as schools, health centres and UN facilities should be protected from attack. Well before the current fighting, the UN had given to the Israeli authorities the GPS co-ordinates of all its installations in Gaza, including Asma elementary school [which was shelled].
Considering that Israel has arguably the most sophisticated weaponry in the world, why were there so many civilian casualties? Why did so much of the civilian infrastructure get annihilated (including entire residential neighborhoods, farmlands, schools, UN facilities, health facilities, electricity, water purification and sanitation plants)? These questions lie at the very heart of the Goldstone Report.
A tired rhetorical tactic of Goldstone Report critics (including many of our own U.S. Congressmen) has been to re-frame the argument to a simple justification: “Israel had every right to defend itself against Hamas rocket fire.”
The truth of the matter is the Goldstone Report NEVER EVER criticizes Israel for launching a military operation against Gaza in retaliation of Hamas rocket fire. In fact, the war crimes attributed to Israel are entirely focused on its deliberate targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure (as just described above).
Here’s distinguished South African jurist Richard Goldstone making this point to Bill Moyers:
BILL MOYERS: Let me put down a few basics first. Personally, do you have any doubt about Israel’s right to self-defense?
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Absolutely not. And our approach to our mission and in our report the right of Israel to defend its citizens is taken as a given.
BILL MOYERS: So the report in no way challenges Israel’s right to self-defense-
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Not at all. What we look at is how that right was used. We don’t question the right.
BILL MOYERS: What did you see with your own eyes when you went there?
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, I saw the destruction of the only flour-producing factory in Gaza. I saw fields plowed up by Israeli tank bulldozers. I saw chicken farms, for egg production, completely destroyed. Tens of thousands of chickens killed. I met with families who lost their loved ones in homes in which they were seeking shelter from the Israeli ground forces. I had to have the very emotional and difficult interviews with fathers whose little daughters were killed, whose family were killed. One family, over 21 members, killed by Israeli mortars. So, it was a very difficult investigation, which will give me nightmares for the rest of my life. [..]
BILL MOYERS: What makes those acts war crimes, as you say?
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, humanitarian law, really fundamentally is what’s known as the “principle of distinction.” It requires all people involved, commanders, troops, all people involved in making war, it requires them to distinguish between civilians and combatants. […]
BILL MOYERS: You wrote, quote, the military operation, this military operation in Gaza, was a result of the disrespect for the fundamental principle of ‘distinction’ in international humanitarian law. So in layman’s language, the distinction between what and what?
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Between combatants and innocent civilians.
BILL MOYERS: And you’re saying Israel did not do that, in many of these incidents.
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: Did you find evidence that that is deliberate on their part?
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: Well, we did. We found evidence in statements made by present and former political and military leaders, who said, quite openly, that there’s going to be a disproportionate attack. They said that if rockets are going to continue, we’re going to hit back disproportionately. We’re going to punish you for doing it. And that’s not countenanced by the law of war.
BILL MOYERS: So they were doing, on the ground, what they had said earlier they intended to do.
RICHARD GOLDSTONE: That’s correct.
BILL MOYERS: -so there was intention.
Israel’s Deliberate Intent: “The Dahiya Doctrine”
A key lesson taken away from Israel’s 2006 military escalation in Lebanon — where over 1,100 Lebanese civilians were killed, 915,762 displaced (25% of Lebanon’s entire population), and significant civil infrastructure was destroyed — became known to Israeli Officials as “The Dahiya Doctrine”. Israeli Defense Forces’ Northern Command chief, Maj.-Gen. Eisenkot, described the doctrine to the press while actively serving in a senior command position (also transcribed into the contents of the Goldstone Report):
“What happened in the Dahiya quarter of Beirut in 2006 will happen in every village from which Israel is fired on,” said Gadi Eisenkot, head of the army’s northern division. Dahiya was a Hizbullah stronghold that Israel flattened in sustained air raids during a 34-day war with the Shiite group two years ago.
“We will apply disproportionate force on it (village) and cause great damage and destruction there. From our standpoint, these are not civilian villages, they are military bases,” Eisenkot told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.
“This is not a recommendation. This is a plan. And it has been approved,” Eisenkot added.
The Goldstone Report quoted Major General (Ret.) Giora Eiland as having revealed (also in October of 2008 — less than two months before the Gaza offensive) that:
In the event of another war with Hizbullah, the target must not be the defeat of Hizbullah but “the elimination of the Lebanese military, the destruction of the national infrastructure and intense suffering among the population… Serious damage to the Republic of Lebanon, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people are consequences that can influence Hizbollah’s behaviour more than anything else”.
Israeli Leader, Col. (Ret.) Gabriel Siboni, also weeks before the Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, had this to say about Israel’s military plans:
With an outbreak of hostilities, the IDF will need to act immediately, decisively,and with force that is disproportionate to the enemy’s actions and the threat it poses. Such a response aims at inflicting damage and meting out punishment to an extent that will demand long and expensive reconstruction processes. The strike must be carried out as quickly as possible, and must prioritize damaging assets over seeking out each and every launcher. Punishment must be aimed at decision makers and the power elite… In Lebanon, attacks should both aim at Hizbollah’s military capabilities and should target economic interests and the centres of civilian power that support the organization. Moreover, the closer the relationship between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Government, the more the elements of the Lebanese State infrastructure should be targeted. Such a response will create a lasting memory among … Lebanese decision makers, thereby increasing Israeli deterrence and reducing the likelihood of hostilities against Israel for an extended period. At the same time, it will force Syria, Hizbollah, and Lebanon to commit to lengthy and resource-intensive reconstruction programmes…
This approach is applicable to the Gaza Strip as well. There, the IDF will be required to strike hard at Hamas and to refrain from the cat and mouse games of searching for Qassam rocket launchers. The IDF should not be expected to stop the rocket and missile fire against the Israeli home front through attacks on the launchers themselves, but by means of imposing a ceasefire on the enemy
The Goldstone Report adds this paragraph on Israeli intent:
The Mission does not have to consider whether Israeli military officials were directly influenced by these writings. It is able to conclude from a review of the facts on the ground that it witnessed for itself that what is prescribed as the best strategy appears to have been precisely what was put into practice.
The Report concludes that Palestinian civilians and their non-military infrastructure in Gaza were NOT collateral damage in Operation Cast Lead; they were intentionally and deliberately targeted for destruction.
Which begs the question: if the UN had insisted on forming its own fact finding mission to investigate the war crimes that had been extensively reported in Lebanon, could that undertaking have deterred Israel from pursuing the Dahiya Doctrine in Gaza? The Israeli government had instead been permitted to appoint its own commission of inquiry, the Winograd Commission — whose findings were blasted by Amnesty International and other human rights groups for completely disregarding Israeli actions that could implicate its officials in war crimes. The Independent said of the Commission’s findings:
The commission’s statement last night omitted any mention of civilian casualties in Lebanon – for which Israel faced widespread criticism during the war. Instead it contained a strong, if hawkish, message to the Israeli political and military establishment that its only hope of “peace or non-war” is if Israeli society and others in the region believe “Israel has the political and military capabilities… to deter… its neighbours.”
Israel obviously interpreted the Winograd findings along with the international community’s reluctance to pursue war crimes investigations as something of a green light for pursuing the Dahiya Doctrine in Gaza. Let us hope that the Goldstone Report — which was resoundingly endorsed in October in a UN Human Rights Council Resolution — will help to serve as a deterrent against future crimes against humanity.