Stephen M. Walt
How not to act like a superpower
Yesterday Israel approved the construction of 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The White House said it was “dismayed,” declared that “these actions make it more difficult to our efforts to succeed” (duhhh, that’s the idea!) and reiterated its belief that the status of Jerusalem should be resolved through negotiation. Needless to say, the ...
Yesterday Israel approved the construction of 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The White House said it was “dismayed,” declared that “these actions make it more difficult to our efforts to succeed” (duhhh, that’s the idea!) and reiterated its belief that the status of Jerusalem should be resolved through negotiation.
Needless to say, the alleged “dismay” was not accompanied by concrete action to encourage the Netanyahu government to reconsider its position. Instead, the White House underscored its de facto capitulation by altering the title of its own press release. As Spencer Ackerman reports here, the original press release was entitled “”Statement by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on the Approval of Settlement Expansion in Jerusalem” (my emphasis). That rather bland expression was apparently too hot, however, so the words “approval of settlement expansion” were stripped from the title of online version that appeared later. If you access it now, it is merely a “Statement by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Jerusalem.”
But if you really want to see the contortions that our brain-dead policy imposes on long-suffering press secretaries, read the following excerpt from State Department spokesman Ian Kelly’s press briefing yesterday, and ask yourself if this how a representative of the world’s most powerful country ought to sound. (It’s not Kelly’s fault, by the way, insofar as his job is to defend the indefensible).
QUESTION: On the peace process, Israel has approved today the construction of 900 new housing units in East Jerusalem. How do you view this approval at this specific time?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think, Michel, you’ve heard us say many times that we believe that neither party should engage in any kind of actions that could unilaterally preempt or appear to preempt negotiations. And I think that we find the Jerusalem Planning Committee’s decision to move forward on the approval of the — approval process for the expansion of Gilo in Jerusalem as dismaying. This is at a time when we’re working to re-launch negotiations, and we believe that these actions make it more difficult for our efforts to succeed. So we object to this, and we object to other Israeli practices in Jerusalem related to housing, including the continuing pattern of evictions and demolitions of Palestinian homes. And — just to repeat what we’ve said all along, our position on Jerusalem is clear. We believe that the – that Jerusalem is a permanent status issue that must be resolved through negotiations between the two parties.
QUESTION: Can you tell us, did this come up in Ambassador Mitchell’s meetings in London yesterday? Apparently, we were told that he met an advisor to Netanyahu, asked them to not permit these new buildings, and then that request was flatly turned down.
MR. KELLY: Yeah. Andy, I just don’t want to get into the substance of these negotiations. They’re sensitive. I think you’ve seen the Israeli — some Israeli press reports that did report that this was raised in the meetings. … But I don’t want to get into the substance of the discussions yesterday in London. …
QUESTION: How long is the U.S. going to continue to tolerate Israel’s violation of international law? I mean, soon it’s not even going to be possible — there’s not going to be any land left for the Palestinians to establish an independent state.
MR. KELLY: Well, again, this is a — we understand the Israeli point of view about Jerusalem. But we think that all sides right now, at this time when we’re expending such intense efforts to try and get the two sides to sit down, that we should refrain from these actions, like this decision to move forward on an approval process for more housing units in East Jerusalem.
QUESTION: But should U.S. inaction, or in response to Israel’s actions, then be interpreted as some sort of about-face in policy – the President turning his back on the promises he’s made to the Palestinians?
MR. KELLY: You’re — okay, you’re using language that I wouldn’t use. I mean, again, our focus is to get these negotiations started. We’re calling on both parties to refrain from actions, from – and from rhetoric that would impede this process. It’s a challenging time, and we just need to focus on what’s important here, and that’s —
QUESTION: Well, what actions (inaudible) the Palestinians taken recently that would impede progress?
MR. KELLY: Well, as I say, we would discourage all unilateral actions, and I think —
QUESTION: Fair enough. But the Palestinians —
MR. KELLY: We talked yesterday —
QUESTION: — don’t appear to be taking any unilateral actions. It seems to be (inaudible).
MR. KELLY: Well, we did talk yesterday about the – and I want to make sure I get my language right here – about the – discouraging any kind of unilateral appeal for United Nations Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That would fall in that category of unilateral actions.
QUESTION: Okay. So the Palestinian call for this, which was rejected by both the EU and yourself yesterday, you’re putting that on the same level as them building — as the Israelis building —
MR. KELLY: No, I’m not saying that. You just said that, Matt. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that —
QUESTION: Well, you’re saying you’re calling on both sides to stop doing these things.
MR. KELLY: We are.
QUESTION: Yeah. But the rhetoric from the —
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent.
QUESTION: — Palestinians is not actually constructed in a —
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying they’re equivalent. I’m just saying that we — they — we have to treat these things as sensitive issues.
QUESTION: You said a little bit earlier that we understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem. Can you explain what you mean by that?
MR. KELLY: Well, you have to ask — I’m not going to stand up here and characterize the Israeli point of view on —
QUESTION: No. I’m just asking you, if you understand the Israeli point of view on Jerusalem, why are you saying that this is not a good thing?
MR. KELLY: I’m not saying we support the Israeli point of view. We understand it.
QUESTION: Right. And then, last one on this, you characterized this decision by the planning commission as dismaying.
MR. KELLY: Yes.
QUESTION: You can’t come up with anything stronger than “dismaying”? I mean, this flies in the face of everything you’ve been talking about for months and months and months.
MR. KELLY: It’s dismaying.
QUESTION: Yeah, you can’t offer a condemnation of it or anything like that? (Laughter.) I mean, who is in charge of the language here.
MR. KELLY: I have said what I have said, Mr. Lee. . .
QUESTION: Would you say, though, that your own envoy has – does he have any leverage at this point, given the fact that the Israelis not only refuse, but blatantly have ignored his wishes on this?
MR. KELLY: Well, let’s take a step back and let’s also recognize that both sides agree on the goal, and that goal is a comprehensive peace. That goal is two states living side by side in peace and security and cooperation. So that is why we continue to be committed to this. That is why Special Envoy Mitchell meets with both sides at every opportunity, and why we are continuing to expend such efforts on this. So let’s remember that, that we do share a common goal.
QUESTION: Well, where’s Senator Mitchell today?
MR. KELLY: I believe Senator Mitchell is on his way back today.
QUESTION: Could you give us just a brief synopsis of the progress that Senator Mitchell has made in his months on the job?
MR. KELLY: Well, I think we have – we’ve gotten —
QUESTION: Yeah, maybe if the —
MR. KELLY: — both sides to agree on this goal. We have gotten both sides —
QUESTION: Ian, they agreed on the goal years ago. I mean, that’s not —
MR. KELLY: Well, I think that we – this government —
QUESTION: You mean you got the Israel Government to say, yes, we’re willing to accept a Palestinian state? You got Netanyahu to say that, and that’s his big accomplishment?
MR. KELLY: That is an accomplishment.
QUESTION: But previous Israeli administration – previous Israeli governments had agreed to that already.
MR. KELLY: Okay, all right.
QUESTION: So in other words, the bottom line is that, in the list of accomplishments that Mitchell has come up with or established since he started, is zero.
MR. KELLY: I wouldn’t say zero.
QUESTION: Well, then what would you say it is?
MR. KELLY: Well, I would say that we’ve gotten both sides to commit to this goal. They have – we have – we’ve had a intensive round or rounds of negotiations, the President brought the two leaders together in New York. Look —
QUESTION: But wait, hold on. You haven’t had any intense —
MR. KELLY: Obviously —
QUESTION: There haven’t been any negotiations.
MR. KELLY: Obviously, we’re not even in the red zone yet, okay.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. KELLY: I mean, we’re not — but it’s — we are less than a year into this Administration, and I think we’ve accomplished more over the last year than the previous administration did in eight years.
QUESTION: Well, I – really, because the previous administration actually had them sitting down talking to each other. You guys can’t even get that far.
MR. KELLY: All right … Give us a chance …
QUESTION: It seems Senator Mitchell is focusing in his meetings on the Israeli side. Is he — does he have any plans to talk with the Palestinians, or there is no need now for that?
MR. KELLY: Well, he, as I say, he had meetings yesterday with the Israelis. He’s coming back to the U.S. now. He always stands ready to talk to both sides. There are no plans at this moment to meet with the Palestinian side.”
One comment: Can you imagine what most neoconservatives would say if the United States acted this way towards any other country? Cries of “appeasement” and “cowardice” would ring from the rafters, and Obama and his team would be dismissed as feckless lightweights who simply weren’t up to the job of serious, hard-nosed diplomacy. For some reason, neocons insist that America show firmness and resolve when dealing with every other country in the world, but they are happy when Uncle Sam rolls over and plays dead whenever there’s a disagreement with Israel. To repeat a point I’ve made before: this situation is not good for either country, and that reality will become increasingly clear in the months and years ahead.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images