- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I was out-of-town giving a guest lecture when Vice-President Biden arrived in Israel, so I didn’t have a chance to blog about the interesting reception he received. Biden is well-known as a great friend of Israel, and his objective was to smooth over the recent frictions between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government and to jump-start indirect talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. So Biden began his visit by reaffirming America’s “absolute total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.”
His reward was to get blind-sided by the announcement that Israel’s Interior Ministry had authorized the construction of another 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. (Israel annexed E. Jerusalem after the 1967 Six Day War, but this seizure is not recognized by the international community — including the United States). Given that the Palestinians hope to locate their capital there if a two-state solution is ever reached, this announcment was — to put it mildly — not a friendly gesture.
Aides to Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu have claimed that this announcement was an oversight and that Bibi was not aware that his own Interior Minister was going to make it. I don’t believe that — and neither does Biden’s staff — but even if it’s true, it’s really a secondary issue. Netanyahu did not disavow the announcement or reverse the decision (which is not surprising, given that he has long supported continued Israeli expansion in E. Jerusalem). Moreover, Ha’aretz reported today that the 1,600 homes are just a drop in the bucket, and that the Israel government is planning to build 50,000 (!) homes there over the next few years. In short, the announcement was either an attempt to derail the talks before they get started or a blatant gesture of contempt for the Obama administration itself.
First, why should anyone be surprised by this sort of "in-your-face" reception? The Netanyahu government has been stonewalling Obama ever since the Cairo speech, and so far the only price they have paid was some tut-tutting that they were being "unhelpful." Some observers used to maintain that Israeli prime ministers got in trouble at home if they didn’t get along with the U.S. president, but Bibi’s popularity seems to have been enhanced by his spats with Obama and Mitchell. If Biden was expecting a love-fest when he arrived, he just hasn’t been paying attention.
Second, this incident also tells you that even if the "proximity talks" do get underway, they aren’t going anywhere. The United States and the Palestinian Authority want to create a viable, territorially-contiguous Palestinian state on nearly all of the West Bank (which means that after a century of conflict, the Palestinians are accepting roughly 22 percent of Mandate Palestine). There would be land swaps to accommodate some Israeli settlements, and the Palestinian capital would be located in E. Jerusalem. If you read Netanyahu’s speech at Bar Ilan University last June (which marked the first time he uttered the phrase "Palestinian state") it’s clear that the only "two-state solution" he will accept is one where the Palestinians get a few disconnected and totally disarmed statelets, with Israel in full control of their borders, airspace, water, and electromagnetic spectrum. And remember that Netanyahu is among the more moderate people in his own coalition.
There isn’t going to be any deal if the United States and/or EU don’t put a lot of pressure on Israel, and Barack Obama has already shown us that he’s not capable of doing that. There may be some more sharp words from Washington (i.e., Biden has already "condemned" Israel’s action and Bibi has expressed regret for the timing of the announcement), but don’t expect anything significant. So the proximity talks are pointless, my earlier advice to George Mitchell still stands, and people ought to start thinking about what they’ll do if it ever becomes clear that "two states for two peoples" just ain’t gonna happen.
Third, I am wondering what prominent neoconservatives think of all this. They are almost always in favor of the bold and decisive use of American power, and they are quick to criticize when Democratic presidents get humiliated by some foreign leader. I therefore assume they are deeply upset by this display, and that the Weekly Standard and National Review will quickly demand that Obama stand up to this latest challenge to America prestige and global leadership.
Lastly, my FP colleague Dan Drezner asked a good question the other day: Why has Israeli diplomacy committed so many obvious gaffes recently? Part of the blame undoubtedly lies with particular individuals, but I think there are also structural (or even structural realist) factors at work. Realist theory argues that the pressures of international competition impose a certain discipline on a country’s diplomatic conduct: when actions have real consequences, you need to think things through carefully and act with prudence and restraint. But when any country is insulated from the short-term consequences of its own blunders, you can expect it to act in a less careful or disciplined way. Domestic politics will exert greater weight, ideological fantasies get pursued, and personal whims are more easily indulged.
Just as America’s dominant position allowed it to pursue a lot of ill-advised excesses over the past fifteen years (see under: Iraq), America’s “special relationship” with Israel has insulated the latter from the consequences of its own follies. We see the results in the entire settlement enterprise — which threatens to turn Israel into an apartheid state and jeopardizes its long-term future — and in ham-fisted diplomatic kerfluffles like the Biden visit or the deliberate humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. The original Zionists faced a more challenging environment and usually acted with great adroitness, consistency of purpose and imagination, while their successors in recent decades have been able to misbehave in part because Uncle Sam was always there to provide support and diplomatic cover. And that’s why some of us think the “special relationship” is unintentionally harmful to both countries, and that a normal relationship would be in everyone’s interest.