The Politics of Counter-Terrorism, the U.S., and Leaving Out Israel

The real reason the U.S.-sponsored Global Counter-Terrorism Forum didn't include Israel -- and why Israel supporters should be happy about it.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and heads of state meet in Istanbul for the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum. (Reuters)

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.

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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."

The administration reasoned that the progress made by the organization would ultimately better serve Israel's interests (not to mention those of the United States) than would the symbolic benefits of including it in a group that likely wouldn't accomplish anything. They also concluded that once the organization was up and running, and its agenda was established, they could find ways to include Israel that would not be disruptive.

"We talked to the Israelis from the outset," the U.S. official said. "They weren't thrilled about [not being included] but they understood the rationale, especially when we said we would involve them farther down the line. ... The [Israeli] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the people we deal with, they understand why this is good for Israel, dealing with a serious problem in their region."

The official confirmed that the State Department has plans weighing Israeli inclusion in the group's Africa committee and perhaps the specialized group on rule of law. But the U.S. is holding off on making an official request to include Israel until those plans are finalized, reasoning that a proposal to include Israel on specific projects would be more likely to garner support than an abstract plea for inclusion.

The administration's hopes for the forum seem to have panned out. In the 10 months since the group launched, they've set up a training center in Abu Dhabi for combatting violent extremism and a center in Tunisia for using the rule of law to fight terrorism -- both the first of their kind in the Arab world. All of the participating countries have endorsed recommendations for best practices on criminal justice tools and prison de-radicalization and rehabilitation programs, which the U.S. Department of Justice already uses to provide training and technical assistance to other countries. The forum has also mobilized $150 million to fund these new programs.

And Israeli expertise has been quietly represented at the GCTF: David Scharia, a former Israeli national security prosecutor recently appointed as the UN Security Council's top counterterrorism lawyer, has been attending GCTF meetings as the official liaison of the UN's Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED). "We pushed hard at senior levels to get him promoted to his current position" -- the highest-ranking Israeli currently serving in the UN -- "and have been actively engaging with him through the GCTF," the U.S. official said.

Ironically, the recent calls to officially include Israel in the forum actually seem to be making the country's inclusion less likely. By drawing attention to the issue and making it into a political litmus-test, countries in the forum who might have previously looked the other way on quiet Israeli participation will now be forced to take a public stand for or (more likely) against it.

According to the State Department official, it is no coincidence that pro-Israel groups such as the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee have been largely silent in public on the topic. "They've heard us out, they've realized why we're doing it like this, and they know it is a top priority for us to get Israeli expertise included at the right time," the official said.

The calls -- in the name of Israel -- to include Israel in the forum, despite the consequences it might have on the forum's efficacy, follow a growing trend of advocacy for policies by "pro-Israel" actors that actually run counter to Israel's interests. When some Israel-allies pushed for the United States to defund the United Nations, for example, they contradicted Israeli diplomats who insisted that U.S. engagement at the UN works in the country's favor. Some also called to cut off aid to the Palestinians, though the Israeli government itself released a report calling for the international community to continue that aid.

This most recent incident is another reminder that, in America, being seen as "pro-Israel" is becoming increasingly disconnected from supporting policies that are actually good for Israel. It is no coincidence that many of those criticizing the Obama administration's approach to the GCTF are partisan opponents of the president.

To be sure, Israel's absence from the forum has its costs. Israel has much expertise to contribute on the issue of counter-terrorism. And its exclusion could send the wrong message and have a ripple effect, with Israeli officials expressing concern that it could give an unintended U.S. imprimatur to the marginalization and de-legitimization that Israel is encountering elsewhere in the international community. "Isolation," Anzar argues, "renders Israel weaker against its enemies." Israeli officials also suggest that Israel's inclusion in the forum could help them use these issues of mutual concern to build bridges with countries that are currently hostile to them.

But considering Israel's dangerous neighborhood and the constant threat of terrorist attacks it must confront both at home and abroad, the country can scarcely afford symbolic measures at the cost of concrete progress in the fight against extremist groups. The "horrific terrorist attack in Bulgaria [on July 18], which killed a Bulgarian and five Israeli citizens, is just the most recent reminder of the global nature of the terrorist threat and no country is immune from it," Benjamin said. "It also serves as another reminder that effective international cooperation, whether among police, policymakers, prosecutors, judges, border officials, or others, is essential both in responding to these attacks and preventing future ones."

The reality is that most of the countries that serve as breeding grounds for terrorists -- and thus the most crucial countries for the U.S. to coordinate with on counter-terrorism -- also have hostile relations with Israel. Those who advocate for Israel are better served by recognizing this reality and finding tangible ways to improve Israel's security.

Additional research by Shira Telushkin.