Escalating post-Biden criticism of Israel from Washington
Mar 16, 2010 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
March 16, 2010
Number 03/10 #03
This Update deals with the apparent escalation in the US criticism of Israel over the announcement of new housing in Jerusalem, which continued even following the departure of US Vice-President Biden from Israel. (Some details about the extent of the crisis in relations is discussed in this piece detailing the warning issued by Israeli Ambassador to Washington Michael Oren, the Israeli Labor party leader Ehud Barak also commented on the damage done, blogger Shmuel Rosner has some good Q&A on the subject, while Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz discusses possible US motivation for continuing to push the issue after Israel thought it had resolved it with a pretty complete explanation and apology.)
First up, looking at the big picture of the visit and the subsequent public disagreement is the reliably penetrating Dr. Robert Satloff, head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Satloff provides the vital background in terms of the state of Obama Administration-Israel relations up to now, what the Biden visit was intended to achieve, and the very positive elements of Biden’s keynote speech at Tel Aviv University (the text of the speech is here, while more analysis of the details is here.). Discussing the escalating US approach to the disagreement, he warns the US Administration of potential pitfalls to its long term goals in handling the matter poorly. For this long and important dissection of where things stand, CLICK HERE.
Next up is an editorial from the Wall Street Journal also commenting on the US Administration’s reaction fo Jerusalem’s mistake in announcing the building while Biden was in Israel. The paper criticises the logic of the the highly public rebuke to Israel as “puzzling”, pointing out that if the Israelis perceive Washington is looking for excuses to have a blow-up in relations, this will increase the likelihood of an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, the exact eventuality the Obama Administration wanted Biden’s visit to preclude. Moreover, the paper questions the wisdom of the US becoming the lawyer for the Palestinians – especially in respect to settlements, which are not the major obstacle to peace – which will likely result in reduced Israeli willingness to make concessions. For the paper’s full argument, CLICK HERE. Agreeing that the US stance has been counter-productive is Washington Post commentator Jackson Diehl, but taking the opposite tack is American foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead.
Finally, the generally insightful Israeli academic Prof. Barry Rubin says the current disagreement is not really either a public relations problem or a policy dispute, but a result of other underlying problems of which he lists 8 in all. Furthermore, he argues, that the US stance is actually more harmful to American administration aspirations than to Israel for a variety of reasons. He says that ultimately, the current crisis will blow over, and regional realities will necessitate a shift in US policy. For Rubin’s complete analysis of the larger reality, CLICK HERE. Others critical of the American approach as unhelpful are law professor Anne Bayefsky, magazine editor John Podhoretz, and veteran Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon, while former Middle East mediator Aaron David Miller seemed to predict that the US would not prolong the crisis because it would be counter-productive.
Readers may also be interested in:
- A symposium of various views on the controversy put together by the Washington Post is here.
- The Palestinian Authority is reportedly taking advantage of the atmosphere to stoke up violence based on a rumour that the newly re-opened Hurva Synagogue, in the Jewish Quarter of the old city, somehow represents a threat to the mosques of the Temple Mount (despite denials from Israeli authorities). The Israelis are anticipating a possibly violent day tomorrow in Jerusalem. More on the reality and significance of the ancient synagogue is discussed in this Jerusalem Post editorial.
- A Hamas leader calls Jews “bacteria”, says they are “not human beings” and calls for them to be “annihilated.” Another says they’ve “killed and murdered your prophets and you have always dealt in loan-sharking and destruction” and are “destined to be destroyed.”
- Despite an ostensible announcement that it was cancelled out of respect for Biden, the Palestinian Authority went ahead with a ceremony naming a square after Dalal Magrahi, who led a terror attack which killed 37 Israeli civilians. Some comment on the apparent double standard in a lack of protest on this Palestinian move is here.
Biden’s Israel Visit and Its Aftermath: The Importance of Maintaining Strategic Direction in U.S. Middle East Policy
By Robert Satloff
PolicyWatch #1642, March 15, 2010
In less than forty-eight hours, U.S.-Israel relations went from “unbreakable,” according to Vice President Joe Biden, to “perilous,” as ascribed to an “unnamed senior U.S. official.” This drastic mood swing risks overshadowing the great achievement of the vice president’s Middle East trip — the affirmation for Israelis (as well as those Arabs and Iranians following his words) that the Obama administration is “determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
The central purpose of the Biden visit was to cap a months-long “reset” of U.S.-Israel relations within a larger reorientation of U.S. Middle East policy.
When the new administration came to office, its Middle East policy was motivated by three principles:
- that Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking was an urgent priority and that a breakthrough depended in large part on Israel proving its bona fides through full cessation of settlement activity, including in Jerusalem;
- that convincing Iran to change course on its nuclear program was also a high priority and that the best way to accomplish this would be to end Iran’s isolation through high-level engagement with Iranian leaders; and
- that the two issues were inherently linked in the sense that breakthrough on the peace process would increase the prospects of success for engagement with Iran.
Over the first several months of the Obama administration, each of these principles was found faulty: In regard to the peace process, Washington overreached in its demand for a halt to Israeli settlements and inadvertently created its own impasse in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy. In terms of Iran, repeated rebuffs by the Tehran leadership underscored that the real source of the problem was Iran’s ambitions, not Iran’s isolation. And in reference to linkage, Arab leaders, such as the king of Saudi Arabia, rebuffed U.S. efforts to build a more conducive environment for Arab-Israeli peacemaking while exhorting Washington to be more assertive against Iran, sending a clear message about their own priorities.
In recent months, the administration has toiled hard to repair its earlier errors, adopting a de facto strategy that positions the Iran nuclear issue as the fulcrum of Middle East policy. Part of this effort has been to roll back its maximalist “not one brick in Jerusalem” position on settlements and to shift the focus from a U.S.-Israel clash on peace issues to a U.S.-Israel partnership on strategic issues.
Nevertheless, within that framework it is still important that the administration create a functioning diplomacy between Israelis and Palestinians — not because serious observers believe a near-term breakthrough is in sight but because an active and ongoing diplomacy denies both critics and naysayers an opportunity to make mischief. Furthermore, it frees the Administration to inject international urgency into the Iran issue. Indeed, some argue that the linkage argument is now turned on its head in the sense that real success in the peace process may only be possible once there is success on the Iran issue. Only when the Obama administration has proven its mettle in preventing Iran’s march for regional preeminence, it is argued, will Israelis and Palestinians be willing to bet on Washington and take the risks necessary for a real breakthrough in peace negotiations.
In this regard, the U.S. diplomatic team, headed by George Mitchell, the State Department’s special envoy for Middle East peace, has shown remarkable persistence in its attempts to convince the Palestinian Authority (PA) to resume peace talks with Israel — an endeavor that should have required a less-than-herculean effort. After all, one would imagine that Palestinians, eager for statehood, would want talks under almost any conditions. But in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the Middle East, the reverse has been true. Whereas Washington figured out how to climb down from its insistence on a full settlement freeze as a condition of peace talks, PA president Mahmoud Abbas found the process uncomfortable, particularly given his volte-face, under pressure, on the Palestinian response to the Goldstone report on alleged Gaza “war crimes.”
In the end, of course, Abbas needs negotiations even more than Israel does; diplomacy is his calling card, without which the Palestinians might as well turn to another leader or, even worse, to the military option of Hamas. Still, Abbas managed to get Washington to work hard to achieve what is manifestly in his interests to do — that is, talk with Israel, even if through the halfway house of indirect negotiations.
At the same time, it is also true that a quiet revolution has been going on inside Israel on the peace issue. What has been lost amid the histrionics about construction permits in Jerusalem and Israel’s habit of delivering concessions to Washington weeks after the Obama administration wanted them is that Binyamin Netanyahu has led the Likud-led government into totally uncharted waters. With his Bar-Ilan speech, he became the third “revisionist” prime minister in a row to adopt the “two states for two peoples” paradigm, effectively consigning Greater Israel advocates to the margins of Israeli politics, where they have no national champion. Moreover, with his decision on a West Bank settlement moratorium, Netanyahu made a commitment that no Israeli prime minister since Oslo — Rabin, Sharon, Peres, or Barak — ever made, and in the process tacitly rolled back forty years of Israeli policy that rejected the idea of settlements as an obstacle to peacemaking. The result is that mainstream Israeli debate on the peace process now centers on the fitness of the PA as a negotiating partner and the extent of Israeli territorial demands — 2 percent of the West Bank? 4 percent? 6 percent? — and not on the more basic question of a repartition of Palestine that would leave the other side with the vast majority of West Bank territory in an independent and more-or-less sovereign state. Over time, these developments will be recognized as seismic.
The Biden Visit
The vice president’s visit to Israel was intended to confirm this “reset” of U.S. Middle East strategy: to affirm publicly the strength of the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership; to inject warmth and “the human touch” in a relationship that, at high levels, seemed cold and distant; to declare, on Middle East soil, the Obama administration’s commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb (thereby silencing the wags who believe there is a slide toward “containment” in the halls of government); and to bless the awkward and hopefully temporary setup of indirect “proximity” talks engineered by Mitchell. Biden was ideal for the task: he has a decades-old friendship with Israel that has not precluded, at times, some very blunt advice to the Israelis.
From the moment of his arrival in Israel, Biden performed like the master politician he is, hitting all the right notes, making all the right statements, saying all the right things. Then came the Shas-controlled Interior Ministry’s statement on Jerusalem construction planning. Though the announcement did not violate the moratorium on West Bank construction nor presage any new construction in the near future, Washington was justifiably outraged by the timing, which seemed to have no other aim than to embarrass the vice president. Although the U.S. reaction — to “condemn” Israeli actions as contrary to the spirit of peacemaking — used language more appropriate to a massacre than to a bureaucratic statement, it clearly reflected the U.S. team’s deeply felt anger. (By contrast, it is useful to note that this statement was far more forceful than President Obama’s “what we can do is bear witness” response to Iran’s violent repression of unarmed anti-government street protestors last June.)
Then, two days later, Biden delivered a major speech at Tel Aviv University that was designed to speak directly to the Israeli people. In that speech, Biden’s intent was to repair the perception many Israelis have — justifiably or not — that Obama’s decision to visit Cairo, Riyadh, and Ankara in his first year as president, but not Jerusalem, was based on a calculation that he couldn’t both warm ties with Muslims and strengthen them with Israelis. And Biden performed superbly. He delivered an address reminiscent of Bill Clinton that voiced his empathy with Israeli pain and joy; he reminded his audience that his father had taught him that gentiles could be Zionists (a word even many pro-Israel activists have begun to shun these days) and repeatedly cited the Jewish people’s historic connection to the land of Israel, thus correcting the regrettable impression left from Obama’s Cairo speech that Zionism only began with the Holocaust.
On the substance of policy, he boasted that the Obama administration had “expanded — not maintained, expanded” cooperation on joint exercises and missile defense and reiterated America’s commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge. And he took a jibe at the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis when he said that “American support for Israel is not just an act of friendship; it’s an act of fundamental national self-interest on the part of the United States.”
That sense of shared interest was affirmed by the critical portion of the speech on Iran. Not only did Biden underscore Washington’s realization that Israel has “no greater existential strategic threat” than Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapon, but he stressed that the “acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran is also a threat to the security — short-term, mid-term and long-term — of the United States of America,” effectively correcting a statement to the contrary made by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton last month in Qatar. And he said America’s strategy for addressing this threat was prevention — “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period” — thereby rejecting the advice of some “realist” voices advocating a more “sensible” policy of containment.
Biden did not avoid the peace process; on the contrary, he devoted much of his speech to this issue. And, for the most part, it was a strong declaration of U.S.-Israel partnership. The key line is Biden’s emphatic statement, to strong applause, that “in my experience, one necessary precondition for progress is that the rest of the world knows … there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none.”
Biden and Clinton on Bibi
On the crisis over the Jerusalem construction planning announcement, Biden explained that the U.S. government viewed it as “undermining the trust required for productive negotiations” and explained that President Obama himself had asked him to “condemn it immediately and unequivocally.” Importantly, he then went on to express “appreciation” for the “significant” steps taken by Netanyahu in the intervening two days to prevent the recurrence of such a bureaucratic blunder.
Given Biden’s comments, it is not unreasonable for his hosts to believe that the crisis had passed. Indeed, Biden did not say that Israel had violated any agreement with the United States by making its ill-advised Jerusalem construction announcement; he did not suggest that relations were severely damaged by making this announcement, nor did he resurrect the demand for complete cessation of settlement activity, including in Jerusalem, that had bedeviled earlier diplomacy. While Biden did promise that the United States “would hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks,” he noted that Netanyahu himself said that “all sides need to take action in good faith if peace is to have a chance.” By the end of the speech — and by the end of the visit — the bitterness that provoked the unusual condemnation of Israel two days earlier seemed to have dissipated.
There are some items to quibble with in Biden’s speech. For example, though he said there was “no space” between Washington and Jerusalem on security issues, in reality they have different redlines in respect to the Iran nuclear question. As Biden noted, repeating previous comments by Obama, the U.S. redline is to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; Israel’s redline, as repeatedly noted by Netanyahu and others, is to prevent Iran from achieving a “military nuclear capability” — a much broader requirement. At some point in the not-too-distant future, this divergence may give rise to practical disagreement between the two sides. If that happens, the potential for a nasty dispute is real.
But the dominant message of the Biden speech and his entire visit was U.S.-Israel amity — which underscored the cognitive dissonance of Secretary of State Clinton’s walk-to-the-woodshed conversation with Netanyahu on Friday and subsequent comments by senior officials on weekend talk shows. In Middle East terms, her rebuke of the Israeli prime minister’s insult to the U.S. vice president was reminiscent of the French outrage when the Bey of Algiers smacked the French consul with a flyswatter in 1827, triggering the dispatch of the French navy to invade, occupy, and colonize Algeria. In this case, however, Clinton’s implied threat was not invasion, but rupture of relations. She not only took Netanyahu to task for insulting Biden and risking damage to the bilateral relationship, but according to reports she also outlined specific demands within the context of peace negotiations with the Palestinians that the government of Israel needs to implement, lest it find itself friendless.
Here, the Obama administration needs to tread carefully and act wisely or it risks the collapse of its entire “new and improved” Middle East strategy. It is appropriate to ask the Israeli government to take steps to prevent freelancing by individual ministers on matters of national significance — especially one like Shas interior minister, Eli Yishai, who is supposed to carry broad government responsibility as a deputy prime minister — and to give additional meaning to Israel’s oft-stated commitment to negotiate in good faith. On all these issues, there are reasonable steps the Netanyahu government can take to allay any lingering concerns in Washington about a crisis of confidence.
At the same time, the U.S. administration needs to avoid demands that undermine the very purpose of the Biden visit, that resurrect the overreach of the first six months of the administration, and that threaten the reordered strategic priorities that have been a salutary course correction for Obama administration Middle East policy. It would be shortsighted for the administration to use this episode as an opportunity to reward the Palestinians — who, after all, have been unenthusiastic about American requests for negotiations for months — or to accept Palestinian arguments that “proximity talks,” rather than direct negotiations, are an appropriate forum for substantive give-and-take. And it would be an analytical blunder for the administration to believe that this incident is an opportunity that could precipitate Netanyahu’s political demise: after all, this government — or another with him at the helm — is an accurate reflection of what Israeli politics these days is all about.
The key for a great power is to know the difference between thinking big and thinking small. The vice president’s mission to Israel was an expression of the former. Even accounting for the Israelis’ grievous blunder that marred Biden’s visit, it is important for the administration not to let itself be diverted from this path.
Robert Satloff is the executive director of The Washington Institute.
Obama’s Turn Against Israel
The U.S. makes a diplomatic crisis out of a blunder.
Wall Street Journal, MARCH 15, 2010
In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has endorsed “healthy relations” between Iran and Syria, mildly rebuked Syrian President Bashar Assad for accusing the U.S. of “colonialism,” and publicly apologized to Moammar Gadhafi for treating him with less than appropriate deference after the Libyan called for “a jihad” against Switzerland.
When it comes to Israel, however, the Administration has no trouble rising to a high pitch of public indignation. On a visit to Israel last week, Vice President Joe Biden condemned an announcement by a mid-level Israeli official that the government had approved a planning stage—the fourth out of seven required—for the construction of 1,600 housing units in north Jerusalem. Assuming final approval, no ground will be broken on the project for at least three years.
But neither that nor repeated apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—at what White House sources ostentatiously said was the personal direction of President Obama—from calling the announcement “an insult to the United States.” White House political chief David Axelrod got in his licks on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, lambasting Israel for what he described as “an affront.”
Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents.
The subsequent escalation by Mrs. Clinton was clearly intended as a highly public rebuke to the Israelis, but its political and strategic logic is puzzling. The U.S. needs Israel’s acquiescence in the Obama Administration’s increasingly drawn-out efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear bid through diplomacy or sanctions. But Israel’s restraint is measured in direct proportion to its sense that U.S. security guarantees are good. If Israel senses that the Administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations, it will care much less how the U.S. might react to a military strike on Iran.
As for the West Bank settlements, it is increasingly difficult to argue that their existence is the key obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel withdrew all of its settlements from Gaza in 2005, only to see the Strip transform itself into a Hamas statelet and a base for continuous rocket fire against Israeli civilians.
Israeli anxieties about America’s role as an honest broker in any diplomacy won’t be assuaged by the Administration’s neuralgia over this particular housing project, which falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and can only be described as a “settlement” in the maximalist terms defined by the Palestinians. Any realistic peace deal will have to include a readjustment of the 1967 borders and an exchange of territory, a point formally recognized by the Bush Administration prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. If the Obama Administration opts to transform itself, as the Europeans have, into another set of lawyers for the Palestinians, it will find Israeli concessions increasingly hard to come by.
That may be the preferred outcome for Israel’s enemies, both in the Arab world and the West, since it allows them to paint Israel as the intransigent party standing in the way of “peace.” Why an Administration that repeatedly avers its friendship with Israel would want that is another question.
Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.
Explaining the US-Israel Crisis
By Barry Rubin
Rubin Report Blog
Monday, March 15, 2010
It is important to understand that the current controversy over construction in east Jerusalem is neither a public relations’ problem nor a bilateral policy dispute. It arises because of things having nothing directly to do with this specific point.
What are the real issues involved:
1. The U.S. and most European governments are determined not to criticize the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) sabotage of the peace process. The facts are clear: The PA rejects negotiations for fourteen months. No reaction. The PA makes President Barack Obama look foolish by destroying his September 2009 initiative saying there would be talks within two months. The PA broke its promise to Obama not to sponsor the Goldstone report. In the end, the PA still won’t talk directly. Yet during fourteen months in office the Obama administration has not criticized the PA once. The point is clear: The U.S. government will never criticize the PA no matter what it does. (We’ll talk about why this is so in a moment.)
2. Same thing regarding Syria. Dictator Bashar al-Assad supports terrorists who kill the United States in Iraq; kills Lebanese politicians; openly laughs at U.S. policy; and invites Iran’s president immediately after a major U.S. concession. Yet the Obama Administration makes no criticism and in fact offers more concessions.
3. The United States will criticize Iran but will not take a tough and vigorous stand against it. Now it is mid-March and no higher sanctions. Indeed, the administration’s sanctions’ campaign is falling apart.
4. On whom can the Administration’s failures be blamed? Answer: Israel. Since it is a friend of the United States and to some degree dependent on it, no matter what the Obama Administration does to Israel that country has no wish or way to retaliate. It is safe to beat up on Israel.
5. By doing so, the Administration gets Europeans to go alone easily and can say to Arabs and Muslims: See we are tough on Israel so you should be nice to us.
6. What does the U.S. government want? A lot of things. An easier withdrawal from Iraq; popularity; quiet; nobody attacking it verbally or materially (at least not so its constituents will hear the attacks); an ability to claim success or at least claim it would have been successful on the peace process if not for Israel; supposedly, Arab support for its doing something on Iran; hopefully, less terrorism; and so on.
7. There is also an ideological aspect given the Administration’s general worldview, which need not be repeated here at length. But large elements in the government apparently have so accepted the manifestly untrue idea that everything in the region is linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict that high-level officials have reportedly remarked that the construction of apartments in east Jerusalem jeopardize the lives of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan or that Arab states won’t cooperate with the United States because of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The argument that U.S.-Arab relations rests on U.S.-Israel relations has been repeated for a half-century and repeatedly proven wrong. American attempts to resolve the conflict have rarely received help from the Arab world, and often been bitterly opposed. At the same time, Arab states have repetedly functioned on the basis of their own interests to seek U.S. help because they recognized American power: to convoy tankers and deter Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, to reverse Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, to protect them from Iran and revolutionary Islamists today, and in dozens of other cases. They may say that everything depends on Israel but that is propaganda.
By the same token, if the Arab world–that is the relative moderates–isn’t being helpful to the United States now, this is due to the fact that such action is often against the interests of states and precisely because they do not view America as a strong and reliable power today. That is the result of Administration policies.
No matter what the Administration does to Israel, these things won’t change. In short, the Administration is falling for the oldest trick, the most venerable con-game, in the Middle East book: Move away from Israel, pressure Israel, solve the conflict, and all the Arab governments will love America and do what it wants them to do.
What makes this even more ridiculous is that now the United States is focusing on Iran and Afghanistan, places where Israel-Palestinian issues clearly have zero effect on events. Sunni and Shia Iraqis aren’t in conflict because of Israel; Sunni insurgents aren’t attacking American troops because of Israel. Al-Qaida and the Taliban aren’t fighting to seize power in Afghanistan and Pakistan because of Israel. And al-Qaida isn’t seeking to overturn all Arab regimes, create an Islamist government, and destroy any Western role in the Middle East because of Israel.
And even if the Israel issue may be one factor affecting the attitudes of Arabs toward revolutionary Islamism it is only a single factor among many. The people prone to supporting revolutionary Islamism won’t interpret an American conflict with Israel as showing the goodness of Obama but the weakness of Obama and the coming triumph of Iran in the region.
8. The handling of this issue is also counterproductive because it ensures Israel-Palestinian talks won’t get going again. After all, if the United States is so angry at Israel why should the PA and Arab states defuse the crisis? They will raise their demands because they win either way: If the United States forces Israel to make more concessions then they get something for nothing. But if Israel doesn’t make those concessions then it gets blamed for the impasse and the Arab side profits from reduced U.S. support for Israel. As for the radical forces–Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hizballah–they aren’t going to become pro-American or support a real peace process no matter what happens.
Consequently, just as with the original demand for a freeze on construction, the Administration has once gain shot itself in the foot. The chances for even indirect talks in 2010 has gone to virtually zero as a result. Israel didn’t do it; the U.S. government did. Ironically, the United States will end up losing more from this than Israel because nothing much is going to be altered regarding Israel-Palestinian issues but a great deal is changing in the larger regional situation.
Why is this all not more worrisome for Israel? This is so for several reasons. First, the Administration is not going to do much or anything against Israel in material terms. It is not a tough government and doesn’t want confrontations. Its goal is not to injure Israel but to make itself look good. Moreover, it knows that pushing harder won’t bring any reward since Israel won’t yield and the peace process is going nowhere.
Second, Israel is protected by a very strongly favorable American public opinion and by Congress. At this point, Congress is no longer cowed by Obama. Indeed, the Democrats are angry with him for endangering their survival by the unpopular actions he is pressing on them. They know that the November elections look very bad for them. Taking on Israel will make things even worse. And they also have a better understanding of the radical forces in the region and the threat they pose. In other words, they are not so far left as is the White House. After the November elections, the Administration will be on even weaker political ground, especially vis-à-vis Israel.
Third, the Obama Administration’s strategy won’t work. The radicals will become more aggressive; the more moderate Arabs know that the Administration won’t credibly defend them. Sensing blood (albeit mistakenly) the PA will raise its demands higher. The PA could only exploit the opportunity if it demanded final status talks—something it would never do—and try to get the best possible peace agreement with U.S. support. But since they won’t deliver for the Administration, they won’t collect much from it.
Eventually, the extremism of Iran, Syria, the Iraqi insurgents, Hamas, Hizballah, Libya, and to a lesser degree the PA will force a shift in U.S. strategy. Either the Obama Administration will adjust accordingly—at least partly—or will not survive its own electoral test. (This is not to underrate economic factors, which remain the highest priority for Americans, but it is unlikely that these will “save” the Administration, quite the contrary. A continuing economic mess plus foreign policy disasters would make its situation worse.)
This current crisis will blow over when the Administration grows tired of it and has wrung all the benefits it can from the issue, and not before.
Optional notes: This is not to underrate the importance of the bad timing by an Israeli ministry, letting the PA pretend that Israel wrecked a negotiating opportunity. The one thing a politician can never forgive is someone else making him look bad. Unfortunately, this Administration is only concerned about friends making it look bad, letting enemies get away with it repeatedly.
But a more serious U.S. government would not have let that game happen and would have been more even-handed in attributing blame. Such a government would have seized on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology, asked that the building be postponed, and pushed the two sides together to talk. Instead, the Obama Administration just accepted the PA walk out as if it were powerless to do anything.
I have been informed that on a number of occasions that my criticisms of the Obama Administration have led to my being denied certain opportunities regarding projects and writing venues. I can only repeat that my criticism is a response to the government’s policies. I’d be far happier if they had a better policy and more competent implementation so that it would be possible to praise the government of the United States rather than have to criticize it.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.