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Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation says, “I think the key is the new circumstances in the Middle East. If you want to take the Middle East to a new footing, you can’t have what you have in Gaza happening. You can’t have the constant drumbeat of the Israeli Palestinian conflict sapping American credibility, and diminishing the capacity of allies to work with the United States.”

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Will Obama shift US Middle East policy?

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our interview with Daniel Levy. We’re discussing the situation in Israel and Palestine. Daniel is the head of the Middle East task force for the New America Foundation. Thanks for joining us. So we left off the first segment of the interview saying that the real wild card or decisive element here for change will be: just what can US policy be here? And are we likely to see anything real? So what’s your assessment so far?

DANIEL LEVY, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: So far what we’ve heard is that the Obama administration, as candidate Obama said during the campaign, is making a priority of Israeli-Palestinian peace, of moving forward with trying to deliver something. Two days in, Senator George Mitchell is appointed as the envoy. Most important for me, I think, is the framing that President Obama and the team have brought to this, which is to talk about Israeli-Palestinian peace as an American national security interest, that this is important for the United States. What exact policy they’d pursue is still in the making; this is still something that’s in the process of being developed and I imagine will be influenced by what the outcome is in Israel.

JAY: In terms of rhetoric so far, in the election campaign and since, although maybe a little toned down from the election campaign, I don’t think we’ve heard anything from President Obama that one wouldn’t have heard from any American president in the last 40 or 50 years. We stand by our ally. It still sounds pretty one-sided. Even after the Gaza war, there was some talk about “It’s tragic about the loss of life,” but nothing about the question of whether it was disproportionate Israeli use of force and so on. And in terms of who he has around him, starting with Secretary Clinton, it’s a group of people that are very entrenched in US policy towards Israel for decades, which has been “Israel is our ally. Period.” Is there any sense of a change here?

LEVY: There’s a couple of things. First of all, in the campaign, as a candidate during certain phases of the campaign, then-senator Obama began to articulate a position where he, for instance, said, “We mustn’t confuse being pro-Israel with being pro-Likud.” He said that in a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, I believe. He, when appearing before AIPAC, actually articulated a position which explained why he also felt that his opposition to the Iraq War was, of course, out of an American interest, but that also this was not, he believed, good for Israel’s security.


June 4, 2008

BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I opposed the war, I warned that it would fan the flames of extremism in the Middle East. That is precisely what happened in Iran. The hardliners tightened their grip, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, and the United States and Israel are less secure.


LEVY: He talked about the need to engage with Iran. He talked about the need for a two-state—. He didn’t hold back from saying things that I think he has continued to articulate ever since.


OBAMA: Now, let me be clear: Israel’s security is sacrosanct. It is non-negotiable. The Palestinians need a state. The Palestinians need a state that is contiguous and cohesive and that allows them to prosper. But any agreement with the Palestinian people must preserve Israel’s identity as a Jewish state with secure, recognized, defensible borders. And Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.


LEVY: In office, you’ve heard, I think, from President Obama a slight change in tone, a slight change in the language. He has managed to, I think, convey an empathy towards Palestinian dignity and humanity which one certainly didn’t hear from the Bush administration. Now, does the new vocabulary translate into a new policy? I think that will be the test. That’s the first.

JAY: And we don’t know yet.

LEVY: We don’t know yet. In terms of the personnel, yes. Senator Clinton has a track record as a Senator from New York, but she also had a track record as the first lady. I think that she is going to be committed to the policy of the president as that policy emerges and gains content. I wouldn’t necessarily write off the entire team. Senator Mitchell, the special envoy, probably the most important appointment so far on this issue, dealt with the Israel-Palestine conflict once intensively for several months.

JAY: But wouldn’t it—a change, a real change in US policy is going to require a change in Israeli policy that you don’t see coming from any of the political parties that have a chance to form a government in Israel, which is a real—if we go two-state solution, a real Palestinian state, contiguous with real borders and a real economy and self-determination, I mean, anything short of that is either going to be a fig leaf or more of the same. So that kind of change requires a real change in American assumptions, doesn’t it?

LEVY: It’s the horse and the cart. Does the change happen first in Israel, and America says, “Oh, great. Now there’s an Israeli government that wants to have a genuinely contiguous, viable, post-occupation Palestinian state as its neighbor, because it acknowledges that therein lies Israel’s possible future”? Or in the absence of that, does the change come from Washington? And here’s the key: I think the key is the new circumstances in which President Obama comes to power in the Middle East. If you want to do, I would argue, stabilization in Iraq, serious push-back against Salafi extremism, if you want to try and take the region onto a new footing, you can’t have what you had in Gaza happening. You can’t have the constant drumbeat of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of the Palestinian grievance, constantly sapping American credibility, constantly diminishing the capacity of allies to work with America.

JAY: But—.

LEVY: And that’s the change, that’s the possible changed circumstance.

JAY: But to do that, most people have said—I mean, it’s conventional wisdom: to have that change in Israel, you’re going to have to have the hammer of American threats to the subsidization of the Israeli military and so on to do that, the only one with leverage, because based on what’s happening in Israeli politics, it seems to be going in exactly the opposite direction. Like, Israelis [inaudible]

LEVY: The beauty of the America-Israel relationship, to my mind, is that you can wrap that hammer up in a very velveted glove if you’re smart about doing it. If—and here would be my argument—I think if the United States says, “Whatever you do, Israel, bless you, it’s wonderful.” I think it’s terrible for Israel, and I think it’s probably a disaster for the United States as well.

JAY: It’s certainly a disaster for the Palestinians.

LEVY: Certainly a disaster for the Palestinians. However, if you have an approach that says, “This is a priority for us, two-state solution. We take seriously Israeli commitments on settlement expansion, for instance, to end, to have a settlement freeze. We take seriously Israeli commitments on outposts. We take seriously UN resolutions. We want to see those lived up to. We’re willing to do this in a way that is incredibly forthcoming in terms of Israel’s genuine, legitimate security concerns. But if we discover an Israeli position that is really about territorial aggrandizement, then we’re going to make our differences known.” And I think this is underestimated. People underestimate what a liberating and clarifying effect on Israeli politics, on the Israeli public debate, on the Israeli media debate an American position which actually says, “We disagree. We disagree on X.” X can be you ending the occupation; X can be a particular settlement issue. “If you don’t have—.” And maybe we won’t need the public disagreement. What I’m suggesting is if there’s an American plan, if America doesn’t say, “Israelis, Palestinians, you go and deal with this,” if America is right, “We’re going to come in and we’re going to try and work this through back-to-back. We’ll talk to the Israelis; we’ll talk to the Palestinians. Here’s what we think is a fair dispensation and how we think it should be implemented,” if you have that kind of an American position, I think very quickly you see a very different debate emerge.

JAY: But for that position to have weight, there has to be—it can be velvet-covered, but there has to be a threat. The threat has to be: we’re not going to continue to subsidize a policy we don’t think is in our interest.

LEVY: And it’s been done in the past, of course. Under the Ford administration in the mid-1970s, America declared a reassessment of its policy towards Israel when there was Israeli foot-dragging on the then-disengagement in the Sinai following the 1973 war. In 1991, of course, President Bush senior, who linked loan guarantees to non-settlement expansion by the then-Shamir government in Israel, in the later 1990s, the Clinton administration said, “We want to see progress,” and they brought together Prime Minister Netanyahu then, of Israel, and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. So you have seen instances whereby there are incentives, but there are also disincentives, and there’s a price to be paid for recalcitrants, and it’s a price that’s not just assumed but that actually becomes very real.

JAY: Well, you just got back from Israel. So in the final segment of our interview—and I’m going to push you into one more segment—talk about the mood in Israel, because the conversation there seems to be going quite the opposite direction, even to the point of disenfranchisement of Arab voters and Arab-Palestinian parties in the Israeli Knesset. So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Daniel Levy.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Daniel Levy Daniel Levy is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a Senior Fellow and Director of the Prospects for Peace Initiative at The Century Foundation. He serves as editor of The Middle East Channel, an online initiative of Foreign Policy Magazine and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University together with NAF’s Middle East Task Force. The site has rapidly become the premiere destination for informed online discussion of the Middle East.

During the Barak Government of 1999-2001, Levy worked in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs, following which Mr. Levy worked as senior policy adviser to then Israeli Minister of Justice, Yossi Beilin. In this capacity he was responsible for coordinating policy on various issues including peace negotiations, civil and human rights, and the Palestinian minority in Israel. Mr. Levy was a member of the official Israeli delegation to the Taba negotiations with the Palestinians in January 2001, and previously served on the Israeli negotiating team to the "Oslo B"" Agreement from May to September 1995