The Middle East Channel

Telling Israel – and ourselves – difficult truths

Telling Israel – and ourselves – difficult truths

For all the anger and indignation of the White House and Department of State over the humiliation of Vice President Joseph Biden by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government during Biden’s visit to Israel, it is difficult to deny that we virtually invited that treatment.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Netanyahu it was the substance, not only the timing, of the announcement of new Israeli construction in East Jerusalem that the U.S. found so objectionable. Presidential advisor David Axelrod added that it was Netanyahu’s attempt to deceive us about the purpose of this construction that is particularly offensive. For the massive Jewish incursion into Arab East Jerusalem is a deliberate effort to prevent a peace agreement and a two-state solution. No Palestinian leader can sign a peace accord that denies a Palestinian state its capital in Arab East Jerusalem. 

But the Obama administration knew what Netanyahu was up to well before Biden’s visit. Israel’s media reported that shortly after Netanyahu alleged his conversion from life-long bitter opposition to a Palestinian state to supporter of a two-state solution, he assured the settler leadership behind closed doors (evidently not all that closed) that the conditions he is attaching to his acceptance of a Palestinian state, including that state’s exclusion from Jerusalem, would be impossible for even the most moderate Palestinian leader to accept.

What is more, Netanyahu had reason to believe that we knew this. Why else would Washington have proposed Terms of Reference (TOR) for the "proximity talks" that accorded the same standing to Netanyahu’s refusal to start the negotiations at the pre-1967 border as the Palestinian demand that they do?  Secretary Clinton knew that the Palestinian position was in accord with the Roadmap. Last August, and more recently as well, she declared that unilateral actions – presumably of the kind Israel is taking in East Jerusalem – "will not be recognized as changing the status quo."  By providing that these two conflicting positions must be "reconciled," the TOR compromised the Palestinian position even before the talks begin.  It also encouraged Netanyahu’s belief that, with the support of the Israel lobby, he can get away with anything.

But nothing has been as damaging in encouraging Israeli disregard for its obligations under existing agreements and international law than the administration’s bizarre notion that halting Israel’s continuing theft of Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line is an Israeli "concession" that deserves to be rewarded by Palestinians and Arab countries with real concessions; indeed, that Arab "gestures" are necessary to justify U.S. demands that this thievery end. It is this perverse characterization of Israel’s obligation to cease its illegal confiscations of Palestinian territory as a concession that is responsible for the behavior that finally has outraged Washington.

The Obama administration must stand by its repeated commitments to do what it takes to guarantee Israel’s security, no matter how serious our differences, and no one should doubt that it will – as will succeeding administrations. But the over-the-top message Biden delivered to Israel that no "daylight" separates Israel and the U.S. when it comes to security is another example of dangerously misleading signals we  send to Netanyahu’s right-wing,  hard-line government.

Israeli governments, and most especially this one, have a long history of abusing the security argument to justify confiscations of Palestinian lands and unilateral border changes. Israeli security vulnerabilities are real enough, even if too often self-inflicted. But they are only increased, not diminished, by the sweeping and unconditional assurances that Biden offered in Israel.  What he should have told Netanyahu is that there would indeed be considerable "daylight" between the U.S. and Israel if illegal measures are taken by Israel under the false guise of "security."

The seriousness of Secretary Clinton’s demand – that Netanyahu remove not with words but "with specific actions" the obstacles his government has placed before America’s peace initiatives and the Israel-U.S. relationship – will be put to the test at AIPAC’s upcoming annual meeting in Washington D.C., to which senior administration officials and virtually every U.S. senator and congressional representative regularly come to pay obeisance. The lobby believes that when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it owns both houses of Congress; House and Senate members have too rarely given AIPAC reason to doubt it.

The Obama administration has now told Netanyahu that not only Palestinian but Israel’s non-compliance with previous agreements, and its obstructions of U.S. efforts to end the occupation and achieve a peace accord that establishes a viable Palestinian state, will no longer be cost free. And they have promised Israel to continue to act as its true friend by telling it difficult truths. The message that Clinton and other senior administration officials will deliver at the AIPAC meeting will tell Israelis and Palestinians – and the rest of the world – what the half-life of this most welcome new American resolve is likely to be.

Unfortunately, initial signs are hardly promising.  President Obama told Bret Baier of Fox News that his disagreement with Netanyahu and his government is "over how we can move this peace process forward." If that is what President Obama really believes, or worse yet, if he does not believe it but thought it is politically necessary to pretend that he does,  it is difficult to understand what in the world last week’s flap over construction in East Jerusalem was all about. 

Henry Siegman, director of the U.S./Middle East Project, is a visiting research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  He is a former national director of the American Jewish Congress.