The real reason the U.S.-sponsored Global Counter-Terrorism Forum didn't include Israel -- and why Israel supporters should be happy about it.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton traveled to Istanbul last month to convene the Global Counter Terrorism Forum -- a group that includes 29 countries and the European Union -- she drew robust condemnation from Jewish and pro-Israel groups for not including Israel in the initiative. U.S. Senators Joseph Lieberman and Mark Kirk, both staunch defenders of Israel on Capitol Hill, wrote a letter to Clinton expressing their disappointment with Israel's exclusion. On Wednesday, Jose Maria Aznar, former prime minister of Spain and chairman of the Friends of Israel Initiative, criticized the U.S.for giving the "cold-shoulder" to Israel, lamenting "the marginalization of [Israel] just for political reasons."
Rabbi Marvin Heir, the dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, accused Clinton of "intentionally" leaving Israel out and bowing to Turkish pressure -- an accusation echoed by Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who also condemned the administration for "downplaying the struggle that Israel has been enduring" and characterized it as part of "a trend of Israel being left out of the global discussion on terrorism." Josh Block, former spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (better known as AIPAC) and frequent critic of the Obama administration, described the decision as "inexplicable" and "beyond comprehension," saying, "Clearly someone failed here."
The State Department's initial response to the criticisms didn't help. "A number of our close partners with considerable experience countering and preventing terrorism are not included among the GCTF's founding members," a Department spokesman said last month.
But the real reason for Israel's exclusion is more complicated, according to State Department officials speaking candidly about the issue for the first time. Ironically, Israel's initial exclusion is actually to Israel's benefit, they argue -- and the vocal campaign for Israel's inclusion is actually making their demand less likely to be fulfilled. If true, the episode would be the latest example of activists who, while believing they are fighting for Israel's interests, may actually be working against them.
The idea for the Global Counter Terrorism Forum project was born out of the administration's frustrations with the current outlets for international cooperation among counterterrorism policymakers and practitioners. The G8's Counter-Terrorism Action Group (CTAG) was seen as "too easily perceived as basically just rich Western donor countries trying to dictate their priorities to the rest of world," one State Department official told me. And efforts to engage at the UN with key Muslim-majority partners on a range of practical counterterrorism issues were too often stymied by decades-old debates about "freedom fighters" and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"The tendency of the governmental bodies within the global organization to return to the sterile debate about who is a terrorist and the emphasis in New York on process and politics rather than action left us thinking that the UN was not the ideal venue to serve as the centerpiece for advancing our strategic counterterrorism priorities at a global level," said Ambassador-at-large Daniel Benjamin, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism.
The State Department in particular felt it was important to expand counter-terrorism cooperation beyond the usual Western, industrialized countries and even beyond the military and intelligence communities. Officials at the agency wanted to expand the focus to include civilian efforts, particularly those related to the rule of law and law enforcement. Looking at counter-terrorism efforts across the globe, they concluded that the U.S. needed to invest in helping to build the capacity of civilian and other rule of law institutions in front-line countries so that they could address the threats themselves.
"It was not just a question of taking out the terrorists who were threatening us at any given moment, but that over the long term, we also needed to diminish recruitment, which the terrorists of course rely upon, and help others to do a better job defending themselves against the threats within their borders and in their regions," Benjamin explained. "Doing so reduces the burden on American taxpayers, builds partnerships, and enables countries to put in place and use rule of law institutions framework to prevent and counter terrorism, thus reducing the likelihood of U.S. intervention, which unfortunately has proven to be significant radicalizer, historically."
The idea was to gather the G8's Counter-Terrorism Action Group members alongside Muslim-majority countries and emerging powers in a technocratic forum that avoided the politics and posturing of previous efforts -- bringing together specialists like prosecutors, prison administrators, and border operators, rather than politicians. The multilateral gathering would also make it easier for the U.S. to start difficult conversations about terrorism with Muslim-majority countries, in a way that might have been tougher in a strictly bilateral setting. The GTAC quickly became a lynchpin in the State Department's counter-terrorism efforts, which held major events in New York and Istanbul over the past year and numerous subgroup meetings around the globe.
But the State Department found itself in a bind: Israel, one of the world's foremost experts in fighting terrorism and a key U.S. ally on that front, would seem to be a natural candidate for participating in the forum. But organizers feared that Israel's participation in the formative stages might have undermined the whole endeavor. "The goal was to establish an apolitical and technical forum that included both our traditional [counter-terrorism] partners and newer ones, a forum that could focus on practical issues of common concern rather than politics," the State Department official said. "We were concerned that if the central issue from the outset was whether or not Israel should be a member, that it would be difficult to pivot away from the politicized discussions happening at the UN and elsewhere."