Monday, January 19, 2009

The MOU Coup

By Le Moineau
First Draft
18 January 2009
Updated 19 January 2009
Article 61

Realism vs Ideology in US-Israeli Relations

One of the oddest events of the Gaza war was the media fanfare around the 16 January US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding. While various efforts across the globe were searching for a ceasefire, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made a surprise visit to Washington to sign an agreement with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that seeks to prevent arms smuggling into Gaza.
Since the idea was proposed earlier by President George Bush, there is no surprise in the content of the memo. Rather, it is the message behind the event that is intriguing, and there are three strong messages that one can read.

1. Divide and Rule
Rice appears to be using the divisions within the Israeli polity to push Washington's agenda through Livni. The Israeli leadership is not unified. There are at least three heads to the government and the war on Hamas: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister and Vice Premier Livni. The Israeli media has been rather open about the discord between them, such as in this recent Haaretz article, where Barak's push for an early ceasefire is 'blasted' by Olmert, accusing his defense minister of 'lacking national responsibility'.
By calling Livni to Washington, Rice is signaling the US has picked her to implement their plans, while not-so-subtly telling Barak and Olmert off. It would not be the first time the US works at the level of the foreign ministries to skirt reluctant or defiant politicians.

2. Acquiesce and Trumpet
In turn, by going to Washington Livni is signaling her acquiescence to her US-assigned role. It also implies her commitment to deliver, unlike Barak (who 'bears heavy responsibility' for scuttling Clinton's Camp David in 2000) or Olmert (who carries the mantle for the 2006 failure). In a way, it is Livni's revenge after Olmert prevented her from participating in the UN Security Council Resolution 1701 deliberations that ended the Lebanon 2006 war, this time explicitly expressing her eagerness to cooperate with Washington for the world to see. Her association with the US, she also hopes, will boost her standing in the polls, as Kadima still trails Likud. In return to stooping to the US, she wishes to be perceived at home as the one who ends Hamas's rocket launches while getting international backing for it. Ending the Gaza war with a 'sustainable and durable' plan in hand might polish her can-do persona and increase her credibility in time for the February elections. The MOU photo-ops will probably be a highlight in her electoral campaign.
Said differently, Livni wishes to use her close ties with Washington to improve her image at home to win the elections, and push for the US-sponsored peace agenda.

3. Coup and Recoup
Importantly, the core of the MOU introduces Nato patrols to the frontiers of Gaza--in line with the recommendations of US realists such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, Obama national security adviser designate James Jones and, arguably, Martin Indyk. While the MOU does not discuss Israeli withdrawal as a condition for a 'sustainable and durable' ceasefire, it actively involves the US and its 'regional and Nato partners' in monitoring the borders.
The introduction of the US military and Nato into the language of the solution is a significant first. We cannot underestimate how deeply it goes counter to years of Likud resistance, Barak's dilly-dallying and neoconservative outright rejection. By signing the MOU, Livni delivers a coup against her electoral rivals while moving closer to the American-sponsored two-state solution involving international troops (including possibly placing US troops in the Golan). Whether she succeeds in derailing years of Israeli ideological intransigence against US pressure remains the question: Can Livni recoup her gains once and if elected in order to go through with the plan for a 'new' Israel?
Chances are very slim. The mere thought of facing two veteran politicos such as Barak and Netanyahu--there are strange rumors of power-sharing--bode ill for Livni's ability to succeed. This uphill battle is one of the reasons she will increasingly lean on Washington for leverage. Even if the new administration dispatches Israeli darlings Dennis Ross and Indyk to pressure their old pal Barak to cooperate with Livni, without a major downgrade of his 'chauvinistic' mischief (or Netanyahu's US congressional weight), the plan is doomed. Driven by staunch ideology, Livni's rivals may go to deeper extremes (Qana 1996, for example) to yet again ensure the demise of the Pax Americana.
Yes, the stakes are that high, and Rice is still steaming about it.


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