Yoram Ettinger, the former Israeli Ambassador for U.S. Congressional Affairs, on Thursday had harsh words for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who he said has ignored the lessons of history in favor of “wishful thinking.”
Hitting at the heart of Israel’s relationship with the U.S., and informed by his years as Israel’s Consul General in Houston, Texas, Ettinger told The Algemeiner in an interview that Kerry’s refusal to acknowledge the historical facts and realities of the Middle East left America’s top diplomat “smothered in a Middle East sandstorm.”
Ettinger said the Obama administration’s “Palestine Firster” mentality was what doomed the nine months of peace talks that collapsed this week between the internationally recognized Jewish state and a group Ettinger insists still be referred to as the PLO, with all of the connotations those initials recall of its long terrorist roots, and showing how far the world is from in its “mistaken conventional wisdom” of a ‘Palestinian Authority’ prepared to govern responsibly beside Israel.
He pointed to the common misunderstanding of the role of the United Nations, where Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has already launched his next battle, but Ettinger was confident that the powerful, though under-appreciated, role of the U.S. Congress in foreign affairs would allow Israel’s position to prevail.
“The ‘Palestine Firsters’ are those who believe that this is the center of everything,” Ettinger told The Algemeiner. “It’s part of an overall worldview – these are the same people who also believe that the UN is the quarterback of international relations. The UN assumes that the Palestinian issue is the center, so if the quarterback is telling you that the entire game plan has to be based on the Palestinian issue, you go with the quarterback.”
“They genuinely believe an Israeli concession – the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria – is going to do the trick, and thereby they ignore the roughly 100 years of conflict that sends a very clear message to the contrary.”
“In the 1920s and 1930s and 1940s, during the pogroms of those years, there was no independent Jewish state. There was no ‘Israeli occupation’, but still there was a war on the Jewish communities in the land of Israel,” he said. “Until 1967, Israel was not in Judea and Samaria, or Gaza.”
That begs the question: If history shows that war predated the “occupation,” how could the “occupation” be the cause of the war?
“And the same thing with the ‘settlements,'” Ettinger said.
“The lesson is very clear. The Palestinian war on Israel is not due to Israel’s policy or Israel’s size. It has to do with the existence of the Jewish state, which leads to the most fundamental misperception and error here.”
Rather than looking toward history or understanding how religion impacts decision making in the Middle East, because those concepts are too complicated to paint a simple picture, Ettinger said the U.S. sees every question through the lens of secular nationalism that can be swayed with the capitalist’s carrot of throwing money at the problem. In this case, Kerry offered $4 billion of aid to the PA to reach a deal.
If it were about money, the oil producing Arab states could come up with even more, he said; “that’s petty cash for them.”
The other tack the U.S. took in the peace talks was to insist on “Palestinian human rights,” with the notion of any group of people being able to choose their destiny through free, frequent and fair elections. But in that case, asked Ettinger, how could Kerry invite Abbas to the table, when he was elected for a four-year term, 10 years ago? Rather than nine months of fruitless negotiations, wouldn’t Kerry’s time have been better spent pursuing “Palestinian human rights” by demanding those people, too, have the chance to choose their destiny through a democratic election?
In Ettinger’s view, rather than face any of the underlying issues, the U.S. approach was to focus on multi-lateral and multi-national ways of solving problems, ultimately accepting the world view of the UN, where Israel’s enemies imagine that the Jewish state is the world’s leading tyranny against human rights.
“You have a world view of [U.S. President Barack] Obama – John Kerry’s is basically Obama’s, Obama calls the shots,” he said. “They are determined to subordinate reality to that world view, irrespective of the fact that the world view has nothing to do with the reality, and that’s typical of John Kerry’s speech, which is replete with the word ‘imagine.'”
“‘Imagine what would happen if?’ And ‘imagine’, and ‘imagine’, and ‘imagine’, and ‘imagine’…”
“And you wonder, why is the supposed architect of foreign policy dealing with imagination rather than reality?
“He is assuming you can coerce reality to be subordinated to wishful thinking, to whims.”
“Again, it goes back to John Kerry,” he said. “This is the same John Kerry, together with [Defense Secretary] Chuck Hagel and [former Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton, who belonged to a very small club in the U.S. Senate which referred to [Syrian President] Bashar al Assad as a ‘constructive’, ‘reformist’, ‘potentially peaceful’ leader of Syria, this is before the civil war in Syria that has claimed 150,000 Syrian lives.”
“By the way, John Kerry had the same attitude toward Hafez al Assad, also, proclaimed him to be a ‘constructive leader’, and therefore one should not be surprised that he focuses on the wrong items when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
When the U.S. declines to act against Syria for completely abrogating the human rights of Syrians, even after two generations of brutal dictatorships, Ettinger wanted to know why Kerry “imagines” that what’s happening in Israel is somehow more urgent than the hundreds of thousands of Arabs dying in various levels of civil war across the Middle East.
As he thought of the appropriate analogy to express his exasperation with the U.S. Secretary of State, Ettinger, dressed in a suit and black snakeskin cowboy boots, admitted his fondness for Texans and their sensibilities.
“I spent years in Texas, as an undergraduate and then as Consul General, and I now visit Texas sometimes four times a year, and there is a Texan colloquialism: When you drive in West Texas, and you’re smothered by a lethal West Texas sandstorm, don’t be pre-occupied by the tumbleweeds on the road.”
“So, here is John Kerry, driving in the Middle East, and he’s smothered by a Libyan sandstorm, by a Tunisian sandstorm, by an Egyptian sandstorm, by a Syrian sandstorm, a Yemenite sandstorm, an Iranian sandstorm, and an Islamic terrorist sandstorm, and what is he doing?”
“Focusing on the Palestinian tumbleweed on the road, which could face him with a very, very lethal fate. Because when you don’t focus on the sandstorm, you may be thrown off the road. And, unfortunately, this is exactly what John Kerry is doing right now in the Middle East.”
“This is Kerry’s 12th or the 13th visit to Ramallah and Jerusalem,” Ettinger said, throwing up his hands, baffled.
Rather than focus on the external forces that Israel cannot change, Ettinger’s approach is to focus on the areas where Israel, and Israelis, can make a difference, constructively, and independently of the “whims” of the world powers.
Retired from the foreign ministry for two decades, Ettinger, a former journalist, publisher and communications expert, now runs a foundation, ‘Second Thought,’ which provides lectures and material to help re-write myths about the Middle East with fresh thinking, aiming to replace the “conventional wisdom” with knowledge based on fact and history. There are two areas, specifically, where his expertise is adding tremendous value to the debate.
The first, which is the topic of his current lecture tour at Jewish organizations across the U.S. this month, is the truth behind the so-called demographic threat. Using real Israeli census data, rather than just conventional wisdom, Ettinger debunks the “myth” that Jews could become a minority within Israel.
In fact, Ettinger’s research contends that not only do the real numbers show the opposite is happening, but that all the anecdotes used to support the “conventional wisdom” are also wrong. In his presentation, Ettinger says that those “Yuppy Jews” in secular Tel Aviv now, and for more than a decade, have taken on their patriotic duty to bear more children than ever before. Meanwhile, the supposedly sky high Arab birth rate has fallen far behind, as young Arabs grapple with the common woes of entering the middle class, not bearing children.
His hard numbers (see below) have made many Israel supporters “sleep easy,” as one said, Ettinger recites many anecdotes of his own personal meetings with young Arabs he “interviews” in gas stations and cafes as he travels around Israel. Members of his audience at a presentation this week were surprised to learn that rather than spurning formal education, many live in towns with near-full high school participation, attend community colleges (mostly, the men) and universities (usually, the women, the better students in the Arab world) and how they repeat the tropes familiar in today’s America, where “maybe one child, maybe two, but definitely after my education, after I get a good job, buy a house, much later in life,” Ettinger said he is told frequently by Arabs today.
Ettinger’s other specialty is interpreting U.S. policy towards Israel. Rather than exclusively believing that what’s being said by the Executive Branch will come to pass in the Middle East, and in light of his experience on Capitol Hill, where he returns on each trip to stay current with the contacts he built when stationed at the Israeli Embassy as an Ambassador whose portfolio was, simply, all of Congress. In some ways, Ettinger’s role was to be a one-man Israel lobby.
It is with a great understanding of how the U.S. Congress functions that he feels the “PLO’s” fallback position of haranguing the UN into validating its claims against Israel will certainly backfire.
“There are some people who assume that the PLO could be granted a ‘state’ status by the UN and the international organizations would then be much more vindictive towards Israel,” Ettinger said. “This is because the vast, vast, vast majority of people, policy makers, definitely in Israel, but also in the U.S., are not familiar with the power of the U.S. Congress to set the agenda here.”
“Namely, while the President or the Secretary of State may want to punish Israel to facilitate the emergence of the Palestinian state, this is not the position of the overwhelming majority on Capitol Hill. And, I am certain that if the legislators would be approached by constituents with their requests to deny the Palestinians adequate support, and to exercise the veto at the UN Security Council, the U.S. can do it.”
“The American President cannot ignore Congress,” Ettinger said. “Congress usually is reluctant to get involved in foreign policy and national security decisions unless it’s a consensus issue, unless it’s a common denominator issue, unless it’s an issue which benefits from the support of vast majority of the population,” he said. In other words, Congress’s support of Israel is strong. In fact, all but one member of Congress voted to enhance the U.S.-Israel relationship, not work to minimize or destroy it.
“It’s time, I believe, for Israel and its supporters to realize that Congress is not a backseat driver when it comes to foreign or national security policy,” he said.
“Congress can defund foreign aid to the PLO; Congress can suspend foreign aid; Congress can suspend appropriations to the international organizations and UN agencies and that would make it extremely difficult and impossible to reward the PLO,” he said. “Because my assumption is that UN agencies and international organizations would not want to ‘cut their nose to spite their face’ knowing that once they support the PLO they’re going to be denied U.S. financial support which is the biggest chunk of their budget.”
Like his work to debunk conventional wisdom of the “demographic time-bomb,” Ettinger “absolutely” sees a UN gambit as another “false threat.”
But he also points to the power of the “false threat” as a weakness within Israel, and shared by Jews worldwide, who focus on so many “negative myths,” because it is that negativity, rather than the positivity of individual action, that limits the Jewish community’s collective strength. Just as Tel Aviv yuppies can “unilaterally” decide to have more children, as they have done, it is incumbent upon each Jew to “unilaterally” choose to do that which he can, on his own, to help the Jewish state when others speak against Israel, he said.
As Ettinger said to one eager questioner at another Manhattan event this week, “Never mind the mistake of waiting for great powers to come to our rescue, never mind what others could do, what can you do? You, yourself? How can you, on your own, contribute here? Only when each Jew does what is in his power will the Jewish people move forward,” he exhorted to a crowd unaccustomed to such direct calls for personal action.
Ettinger’s endorsement of individualism, personal responsibility, and an independent spirit draw inspiration from his time in Texas.
He said the story of Israel in the Middle East is shared by walking a mile in a Texan’s boots:
“When I served in Texas, I used to walk with a ‘Texas’ pin in my lapel. And, many times, Texas ranchers or independent oilmen, who I met, asked me very bluntly: ‘Mr. Ettinger, is there anything in common between us? Why are we meeting at all?'”
“And I said, well, here it is,” as he grabbed at his lapel pin, today the AIPAC-style Israel and American flag pin.
“‘What do you mean?” his potential contact would ask him. “This is our Texas flag.”
“I said, absolutely. You are the Lone Star State and I come from the State of the Lone Star of David.”
“And both of us are Lone Stars. I said, you’re lucky that your neighbors – New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana – they maybe hate you, they’re envious of you, and they maybe even despise you. In our case, our neighbors want to kill us. But both of us have problems with our neighbors. Both of us have to defy the jagged, cutting edge of nature, and that has made both of us very tenacious people.”
He said, “In most cases, people were turned around completely in a positive manner, for the first time realizing that, in many respects, Israel is the Texas of the Middle East.”
But to extend the analogy, what about the people on the other side of that thousand-mile security fence that protects that border, too? What does Israel share with Texas and its relations with the Mexicans?
Ettinger said, “Those who cross from Mexico, in the vast, vast, vast majority, they want to be integrated into America, they accept the American values. Those across the border from Arab countries want to do away with Israel, to terrorize Israel, there is a big difference here.”
He had another Texan analogy he said he wanted to share with the world powers:
“When Americans, Europeans, urge us to sign an agreement, and through that agreement, to concede, and retreat, and appease,” Ettinger began,”the Texans would tell you, don’t kiss a chicken until it grows lips.”
“At this stage, the Arab chickens in the Middle East have not grown lips yet. As long as they don’t have lips, we should be vigilant, we should be on guard, and we should refrain from kissing them.”
“Once they grow lips, this hawk will gladly and enthusiastically become a dove,” former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger told The Algemeiner on Thursday.