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Crisis? What Crisis?: U.S.-Israel Relations and the Demise of the Peace Process

In September 2009, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ushered in a much-trumpeted “freeze” on West Bank settlement construction, as a supposed goodwill gesture to revive the defunct peace process. The freeze did not apply to Occupied East Jerusalem, territory which the government argues is part of the Israeli state and not subject to negotiation with the Palestinians. Even in the West Bank, however, the initiative was more a public relations ploy than a sign of changing Israeli policy. Explicitly intended to last a matter of months, the ‘freeze’ excluded both “2,500 housing units already under construction”, as well as “hundreds of new units” announced just prior to the start of the “freeze”. After the announcement, George Mitchell, the U.S. Special Envoy  to the Middle East, was dispatched on a trip described as “a final push to revive Middle East peace talks”. But the transparently disingenuous approach of the Netanyahu government meant that Mitchell’s mission to restart negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has overseen good relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) on “security issues”, would be doomed to failure.

Fallout from the Biden Visit

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in March was presented as yet another attempt to “restart peace talks with the Palestinians” (as well as being an opportunity for the United States and Israel to discuss Iran). To the shock and surprise of the United States, however, shortly after Biden’s arrival the Israeli government announced plans for 1,600 new housing units in the illegal Israeli settlement Ramat Shlomo in Occupied East Jerusalem. Days later, Mark Perry, author and Middle East policy expert, wrote a piece on his blog at Foreign drawing together remarks attributed to U.S. General David Petraeus and Biden, which together suggested that Israeli intransigence – and the United States’ perceived inability to do anything about it – was harming U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Finally, at the end of March, Netanyahu arrived in Washington, where aside from the support he received at the AIPAC conference, the Israeli Prime Minister was seen as having been “humiliated” by the Obama administration and, in the words of one Israeli columnist, treated “rudely”. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz described Netanyahu as leaving the United States “disgraced, isolated and weak[ened]”, while other reports labelled the announcement made during Netanyahu’s Washington visit of even further settlement construction in Occupied East Jerusalem as “spit[ting] in Obama’s eye”.

After a dramatic few weeks, a period of little movement on the peace process followed, with the parties’ possible positions being staked out in the media. Now, indirect negotiations and ‘shuttle diplomacy’ have begun, yet with little optimism from anyone that the process will lead to positive breakthroughs. U.S. President Obama is touted as ‘getting tough’ on Israel, with a variety of politicians, insiders, and commentators asserting that the U.S.-Israel relationship is in crisis. In real terms, meanwhile, the United States’ day to day assistance to Israel remains unchanged: military sales continue and no one in Washington is talking of punitive measures related to U.S. aid to the country. On the ground, Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories continues unchecked.

Understanding the “Crisis”

So what is going on? One interpretation has it that genuine change is afoot, and that the United States’ annoyance with Israeli foot-dragging, coupled with an “emboldened” President, means the “gloves are off”. This is a view taken by both those keen for the United States to reassess its almost unconditional support for Israel, as well as hard-line Israel defenders.

Another interpretation of these events sees the column inches and press conferences as meaningless, and the diplomatic soap opera as a cynical game – mere “pretended outrage” on the part of an Obama Administration that was reacting “to a diplomatic affront it was dealt by the Israeli government”. In other words, as Diana Buttu, an attorney and former member of the PLO’s Negotiations Support Unit, put it, U.S. “condemnation” of the Ramat Shlomo housing units was “aimed at the timing of the announcement rather than its substance.” As such, while there may be an inclination to interpret these circumstances as representing profound change in the U.S. position, the current “crisis” “actually amounts to little”.

It is possible, however, that both of these arguments are true. The genuinely “new” element here is the shift in the boundaries of accepted discourse regarding Israel, or, in the words of University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, the days when “siding with Israel against the United States was not a great problem” are “gone”. This is a view shared by a number of observers, from Time Magazine’s Tony Karon – “make no mistake, it [the present imbroglio] opened Washington up to a renewed discussion of the conventional wisdom of unconditional support for Israel” – to Scott McConnell at The American Conservative – “for the first time in U.S. history, the pro-Palestinian side has a competitive voice in the public discourse—far smaller than the Israel lobby’s but growing every day”.

An important footnote to this shift may be an acknowledgement and appreciation of the U.S. military-political establishment’s history of critical analysis on the Israel/Palestine issue. Mark Perry highlights the papers on Palestine issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the post-World War II lead up to the United Nation’s Partition Plan, including one predicting that U.S. support for partitioning Palestine “would prejudice United States strategic interests in the Near and Middle East”. The same year, the director of the State Department’s Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs pointed out that plans to create a Jewish state “ignore such principles as self-determination and majority rule”.

A different tone in Beltway blogs is one thing, but policy changes of substance are quite another. The rights accorded to the Palestinians under international law have yet to be realized, and, contrary to the opinions of some commentators, the era of the pro-Israel lobby is not finished.  At the end of March, AIPAC was able to boast that three-quarters of the U.S. House of Representatives supported reinforcing ties between Israel and the White House.

If, as some think, the Obama administration is “ready for a fight”, it is important to identify what the United States is aiming to achieve by getting in the ring. Based on Hilary Clinton’s statements at the March AIPAC conference – “a two-state solution is the only viable path for Israel to remain both a democracy and a Jewish state” – the U.S. position appears to be a mere repetition of statements made by Israeli political figures, notably Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Olmert, and Tzipi Livni, and lacking in any discussion of the means necessary to achieve this vision. In response to General Petraeus’ purported disquiet, the Obama administration allegedly decided to ‘press’ Israel on settlements, send Mitchell off to “a number of Arab capitals”, and get U.S. Admiral Mike Mullen to have a meeting with Israeli General Staff Chief Gabi Ashkenazi. If this is the perceived “solution” to the Israel/Palestine question, then the U.S. remains crippled by the same approach that has served to consistently deny Palestinians their rights: talk instead of action, and cooperation with a disregard for, rather than enforcement of, international law.

There is a real crisis here – but it is that of the international “peace process”, for so long considered untouchable, heading increasingly swiftly towards its ultimate demise. This is the crisis behind the diplomatic brouhahas and merry-go-round of “freezes”, “proximity talks”, and visits by envoys and emissaries. We are in the final act, and the key players – Israel, the United States, as well as many in the PA – are unable to see beyond the end of the curtain call. In the absence of the will to support a just resolution that implements basic Palestinian rights, the actors are reduced to directionless bumbling as the more perceptive among them panic that the charade has become utterly unconvincing. Meanwhile, Israel’s manufacturing of “new facts” on the ground expands and solidifies with each passing day.  In such a circumstance, it is only a matter of time before U.S. officials are being dispatched afresh, under the shadow of a new intifada.

First published by Muftah.

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