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Historical ironies abound in trying to reconcile Putin’s actions in Crimea

Commentary: Can Israel’s land grab in West Bank be justified but not Russia's occupation of Crimea?
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Palestinian protestors from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, near Ramallah, waves their national flag as they sit in the road in front of Israeli security forces during a demonstration against Jewish settlers and the nearby Jewish settlement of Hallamish on March 14, 2014. (ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine—It's been a good couple of weeks for President Obama on the international front.

It all started with the Putin takeover of the Crimea. While that certainly was not good news for Obama, at least it pushed Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu—and his annual visit to Washington where he invariably upstages President Obama—to the inside pages of our national newspapers.

And just when we'd had it with Ukraine, the mystery of the missing Malaysian airplane pushed Putin and the Crimea to the back burner.

Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, in an interview, noting Crimea's "strategic importance to Russia," doubted that Putin had aggressive intentions in the rest of Ukraine but was convinced that the United States will not take any action that will let "Crimea slip out of Russia's hands."

A bit more upbeat, Vali Nasr noted in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that Putin's Crimean grab may turn out to be a "pyrrhic victory."

His argument is that Putin "has overplayed his hand" and that the US "has the upper hand in the broader competition for power and influence that will follow." This is rational and convincing, but even so, the positive outcome is likely years down the road.

It's bizarre, if hardly surprising, that the right-wing media and right-wing Congressmen like Lindsey Graham attack Obama for past behavior that they claim paved the way for Putin's aggression.

The fact is the Crimean situation developed suddenly. It was not orchestrated by Putin; in fact, if anything it was initially (mis)orchestrated by Europe, with US support, in attempting to entice Ukraine from Russia's sphere of influence.

When the ultimate result was the overthrow of Ukraine's democratically elected pro-Russian president, Putin reacted—and that's the key word—to assure continued Russian control over its only warm-water naval base. Obama's not the only one with red lines, and Putin’s reaction should hardly have been a surprise to anyone with a little understanding of post-Soviet Russia.

The land grab of the Crimea was "illegal," Obama tells us. Indeed so. But so, after all, according to international law, are the land grabs and on-going settlement construction by Israel of the West Bank.

There's a certain amount of irony in a situation in which Obama and the West are crying foul, citing international law, and preparing sanctions for Russia's move into the Crimea while Israel's on-going flood of over 500,000 Israelis into the West Bank is essentially ignored.

Crimea was part of the modern Russian empire for more than two centuries; it ended up as part of a separate Ukraine state as an accident of history.

Israel's claim over the West Bank goes back to an almost mythical 3000-year timeframe that, if accepted as a legitimate basis for a claim on someone else's territory, would result in a wholesale relocation of virtually the entire world's population.

This is a roundabout way of saying that while we've come a long way in the past hundred years in agreeing on certain fundamentals of international law, superpowers—and their friends—still rewrite these fundamentals when they see fit to do so.

Netanyahu has been aggressively rewriting the international prohibition against settling in conquered lands, though he certainly isn't the first Israeli prime minister to encourage Israeli facts on Palestinian ground.

Unfortunately for him, time has caught up with Israel's settle-first/think-consequences-later policy.

Secretary of State John Kerry's renewed focus on finding a two-state solution caught Netanyahu (and just about everyone else) by surprise. The nine-month agenda delayed the moment of truth, but next month, the time is up.

Netanyahu, in Washington, talked about the need for additional time.

And Kerry is partially on board. After all, it's taken nearly 50 years, since the '67 Israeli conquest of the West Bank, to get this far; what's another few months?

The new gambit in Kerry's peace initiative is to find a "framework" that the Israelis and the Palestinians can agree to. Which, presumably, after seven months of heightened negotiations and nearly a dozen trips to the area, seemed like a pretty easy step.

After all, it's not the final deal, just an agreement on what the broad areas of a final deal would encompass.

But even that is elusive.

The big stumbling block is Netanyahu's insistence that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the "state of the Jewish people," a requirement that neither the Jordanians nor the Egyptians had to sign on to.

Indeed, it's a concept that Netanyahu has developed only recently and essentially relegates Palestinian Israelis, who make up 20 percent of Israel proper, to second-class citizens.

Suppose, for example, some of today's right-wing Christian politicians started demanding that the US define itself as a Christian state? And why not, if Israel can—the Christian percentage of the US is higher than the Jewish portion of Israel.

There are other long-standing sticking points; most obviously, Jerusalem, right of return, borders, but with these, compromise seems possible. The Jewish state is a non-starter for Palestinian negotiators, and Netanyahu surely knows it.

Which leads to only one conclusion: Netanyahu is unwilling to make the necessary concessions. He prefers to kick the rusty old can further down the road, and Obama will not force concessions out of Netanyahu. So, continued stalemate.

One thing Obama has been willing to do is to paint publicly the dilemma that Israel now faces: in a lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg two weeks ago, Obama was more pessimistic about Israel's future than any American president has ever been.

"Do you resign yourself to what amounts to a permanent occupation of the West Bank?" Obama asked Israel rhetorically. He wondered if Netanyahu has a vision of "how Israel survives as a democratic state and a Jewish state at peace with its neighbors" without a two-state solution.

Focusing directly on the possibility of a failed outcome to Kerry's initiative, he commented that "Israel has become more isolated internationally," that "if Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fall-out is going to be limited."

In other words, Obama is saying that Kerry's initiative is likely to be the last time the US gets involved in helping the Israelis resolve the Palestinian issue. If this fails, Israel will be on its own, and the likelihood of a solution will be remote. And the prospect of this being a positive result for Israel is even more remote.

So Kerry's mission, which seemed like folly at the time, will succeed in a way he hadn't planned: it puts the onus for a solution—and the penalty for not finding one—squarely, and permanently, where it belongs. On Israel.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.
 

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