On May 14, 1948 Israel was born at the stroke of midnight, Jerusalem time. The United States, deciding to be on the right side of history, with Hitler and the Holocaust burning in its memory, announced its recognition of the new nation only eleven minutes later – and it’s been interesting ever since.
Yes, we love Israel. It’s our baby, so to speak. And the neoconservatives hope Israel will use its nuclear arsenal to wipe out Iran’s nuclear sites – and show cowardly Americans how things are done by real men. That might mean a regional war, or a world war, but the neoconservatives like that sort of thing – we’ve gone too soft. And the religious right burns with evangelical fervor for Israel, where Jesus was born and where the End Times will start, fixing everything that’s wrong with the world, as Armageddon, the real place, is nearby – and at that final battle at the end of the world all the Jews will finally recognize Jesus, or die horribly, or something. The idea is that the Jews are the proto-Christians. One day they’ll grow up and finally get it, and accept Jesus. So you pat them on the head and talk nice to them.
Thus conservatives – Republicans, the religious right and everyone on that side – are reflexively pro-Israel, and pretty smug about it. Everyone else dare not say anything critical of Israel. And the pro-Israel lobby is powerful. You don’t mess with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) – that lobby tells America what to do, and sure, they’ve been convicted of espionage now and then, paying guys at the Pentagon to slip the top secret documents to them, but that was for the greater good of Israel, so no one made that much of that. There were things they needed to know, for their survival.
So when Obama mutters that things might be a little calmer if Netanyahu would cool it with the new settlements, at least for now, it’s no wonder Eric Cantor led a group of Republican congressmen on a trip to Israel with a clear message – Obama is in over his head, and a fool, and anything he says doesn’t matter, as Congress will override anything he does to slow you down, as Obama just doesn’t speak for America.
Of course that means that every Jew in America should vote Republican. But they don’t. Even if many right-wing pundits scream at them that they’re awful, self-hating Jews, they still don’t vote Republican. And the conservative right can’t figure that out. But perhaps that has to do with the sense one might get that these folks really, really, really like Israel, but have a problem with Jews.
And of course any elected official or public figure, who suggests that Israel ought to cool it, and maybe not build more settlements in ambiguous areas right now, is called an anti-Semite. Sarah Palin has said about Israel that they have a growing population, they need land, and so they should build settlements anywhere they want, anywhere at all, and call that place Israel too.
What’s the problem? She is disgusted that Obama is suggesting they slow that down. What’s wrong with him? Maybe it’s his middle name.
And of course she’s taken to wearing a second flag pin on her lapel – the flag of Israel. And she says the only flag in her office is the flag of Israel – no American flag at all. (She later said she misspoke out of enthusiasm and her love for Israel, so you must forgive her, as she meant to say the only “other” flag.) Of course one of her key advisors and public defenders is Fred Malek – the guy Nixon tapped to rid the Labor Department of each and every Jew. Perhaps you can love Israel and hate the Jews, or something. She’s working on the problem with all this – but it must be the media out to make her look bad, because they’re jealous of her, as is everyone, but that’s their problem.
But this sort of thing keeps the Democrats in line, as they have to prove they love Israel just as much as the folks on the right do. The American people demand it of them, and of course any wavering opens you up to being labeled ant-Semitic, and thus a fan of Hitler and his Final Solution. You support Israel, no questions asked, or you lose the election.
And that brings up the curious case of Joe Biden, whose decades of work on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, often as Chair, was all about looking out for Israel. Israel had no better friend, even if he wasn’t one of the End Times crowd whose love of Israel is tied up with Armageddon and the Rapture and the return of Jesus. Biden was always more into geopolitical concerns and national security issues. But of course now he’s vice president, part of an administration thinking that solving the problem Israel has with the Palestinians, and vice versa, would go a long way toward bringing stability in that region – not that anything will be solved, really, but at least things could be a bit more stable, for the good of everyone.
Yes, the Bush administration announced its support for a Palestinian state, right alongside of Israel, but everyone knew they were just kidding. The Bush administration did next to nothing about that for eight years – they preferred to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq. And that said it all.
But Biden is part of an administration that is doing something about it. And he flies to Israel to assure them of our undying support, and to see if anything can be worked out, as a start – and Netanyahu kicks him in the balls, or humiliates him, or embarrasses him. Which it is depends on who you read, but you get the general idea. Biden says we stand by you, and they say that’s nice, but we’ve just decided to build a thousand or more new homes in areas the Palestinians think are theirs, and which the UN told us not to do, and all western governments told us would make things much worse and make any sort of peace quite impossible, and which the United States said would end any chance of solving anything.
In short, Biden steps off the plane, makes his little speech about how we stand with Israel – always have and always will – and Netanyahu then announces that Obama and the Palestinians and the world can go fuck themselves, they’ll do anything they please. In the annals of diplomacy this may be one of the most amazing events in years.
Of course there was more to it, and Tobias Buck of the Financial Times fills in the details:
If there were a prize for abysmal political timing, a little-known Israeli government body called the Jerusalem district planning and construction committee would surely be a hot favorite to win the trophy.
The committee struck late on Tuesday, approving a plan to build 1,600 new homes in a Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem.
That the move defied repeated calls by the international community for Israel to stop expanding settlements was bad enough. Worse, it came hours before Joe Biden, the US vice-president, was due to sit down for dinner with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. The intimate soiree was part of a high-profile visit by Mr. Biden, who came to bolster ties between the old allies and prepare the ground for a new peace effort with the Palestinians.
Even more damaging, the provocative decision came just a day after the US proudly announced that the Palestinian leadership had finally dropped its opposition to a new round of peace talks after months of patient US diplomacy.
Okay – consider that. We finally got the Palestinians to give in and agree to talk, and Netanyahu says ha, ha – you blew it – we’ll make sure that never happens. The idea seemed to be to prove that Obama is a fool and they know Sarah Palin should be running things, if the world were fair.
And Tobias covers the implications:
With the stroke of a pen, the committee managed to damage Israel’s vital relationship with the US, cause personal offence to Mr. Biden, provoke fury among Arab and Palestinian leaders and deal a blow to the latest peace effort before it had even begun.
Other than that there was no problem.
But the odd thing is that even if Biden is a Democrat, he didn’t cave. And one assumes Obama told him how to handle this:
Vice President Joe Biden called on Thursday for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to start without delay despite Palestinian insistence that Israel first cancel a settlement project condemned by Washington. …
“The most important thing is for these talks to go forward and go forward promptly and go forward in good faith,” Biden said in a speech at Tel Aviv University. “We can’t delay because when progress is postponed, extremists exploit our differences.”
So the settlement announcement embarrassed Biden, undermined peace efforts, and infuriated the West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, which had agreed to indirect talks under intense pressure from Washington. There will be no talks now. And most of the Arab world was pissed off and ready for more war with Israel. And Israel was pretty much sneering and saying the Bush thing – Bring it on! And Biden looked like a fool, and no doubt Sarah Palin had an orgasm or two.
But here’s the diplomatic compromise:
U.S. officials expressed confidence that despite the flare-up, the indirect negotiations could begin as early as next week, when U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell is scheduled to return to the region.
In his address, Biden gave no sign Washington would press Israel to cancel the settlement project as the Palestinians have demanded, and Israeli officials made clear it would not do so.
Instead, he termed “significant” assurances from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that building at the site, a religious settlement, would not start for years.
With no construction scheduled for now, Biden said, negotiators would have time to “resolve this and other outstanding issues.”
That is a bit of kicking the can down the road, but Biden suggested that indirect talks should lead to direct negotiations on key issues of Palestinian statehood. We can use the time, you see.
And Netanyahu made his little back-down announcement:
In a statement, Netanyahu said he had voiced his displeasure to his interior minister, a leader of the ultraorthodox, nationalist Shas party, over the timing of the announcement of the project. But there appeared to be little chance of any imminent crisis within his governing coalition.
And that was that, although the Netanyahu statement could be seen as a slap in the face to ultraorthodox (evangelical version) nationalist Sarah Palin – but probably not. Her followers might think that of course, but there is a larger context:
Biden’s speech was widely seen in Israel as an attempt by the White House to counter-balance the address to the Muslim world that President Barack Obama delivered in June in Cairo. Many Israelis view Obama with suspicion, and Biden reaffirmed in his speech a U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and what he called Washington’s determination to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons.
On the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic front, Mitchell, who has been trying to broker for a year a resumption of talks, was expected to return to Israel and the West Bank next week.
This is all a work in progress, but McClatchy reports that despite Biden’s plea, the outlook is shaky for Mideast peace talks:
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat announced that he wouldn’t proceed with the U.S. initiative unless Israel revoked its plan. “We want to hear from Mitchell that Israel has canceled the decision to build housing units before we start the negotiations,” Erekat said.
The U.S. hasn’t officially responded to his statement, but a senior member of Mitchell’s team said that “frantic” interventions were proceeding behind the scene to assure that the Palestinians proceed with the talks.
“The resumption of talks has been at the top of the agenda for the Obama administration since he took office. We have devoted countless man hours to this, and we are not willing to let it fall to pieces now,” said the official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. However, he acknowledged, “The situation is shaky and uncertain.”
And Biden was saying things that would not make the Israelis happy at all:
“President Obama and I … believe that in President Abbas and Prime Minister (Salam) Fayyad, men who I’ve known for a long time, Israeli leaders finally have willing partners who share the goal of peace between two states and have the competence to establish a nation. Their commitment to peace is an opportunity that must be seized. It must be seized. Who has there been better, to date, to have the prospect of settling this with?” he said.
“But instead, two days ago the Israeli government announced it would advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. … Because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, I — and at the request of President Obama — condemned it immediately and unequivocally.”
And then he said both sides were on notice from this point forward – “As we move forward I promise you this: The United States will continue to hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks.”
And this wasn’t easy:
The content of Biden’s speech was revised late into the morning, causing a delay of nearly 45 minutes. An official in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed that at 11:30 a.m. – the very hour that Biden was scheduled to begin speaking – the two leaders were on the phone.
The rest of the McClatchy item covers reaction back here in Congress – the Palin sort of folks saying there should be no freeze on settlements, ever, but also admitting Biden has always been pro-Israel and he didn’t deserve to be treated like this. But Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the Palestinians were using the issue as an excuse to thwart peace talks – “There is no doubt that the Palestinians will try to use this to either stop the upcoming indirect peace talks or to extort more concessions from us, and I have explained to U.S. government officials that there will be no more concessions.” And McClatchy notes “numerous reports in the Israeli news media that anywhere from 6,000 to 50,000 additional homes were being planned in East Jerusalem, numbers that Palestinians said were unacceptable to the atmosphere of talks.”
There will be no end to this. And you can see why Bush decided to invade and occupy Iraq. It was less trouble than this sort of thing.
And there were the reactions, like the editorial in Haaretz:
Rather than making conciliatory gestures toward the Palestinians and promoting an end to the conflict, the prime minister is sabotaging any chance of an agreement on the issue of Jerusalem. His construction and settlement ventures do not contribute to Israel’s security or economic prosperity. Instead, they render the chances of a diplomatic solution more remote, fuel greater frustration among the Palestinians, and degrade Israel’s international standing. This campaign to consolidate control over East Jerusalem must be stopped.
But then Haaretz is the leftie newspaper over there. But consider the Jerusalem Post:
The expansion of Ramat Shlomo accords with broad government policy.
Differently timed, and ideally quietly explained to Washington ahead of time, it might have prompted public displeasure from the United States – that the administration had tried and failed to persuade Netanyahu to extend the settlement-building moratorium to east Jerusalem – but likely no more than that.
Instead, because of sheer ineptitude, the timing of the announcement immediately threatened the “proximity talks” in which Netanyahu has stressed Israel has a profound interest. It united the Palestinians, the Arab world and much of the international community in a chorus of anti-Israel condemnation. And most unhappily of all, it embarrassed our most important ally at a time when this ally, as represented by Biden, was making a heartfelt effort to improve relations and assure Israel of its abiding support.
No one was happy, save perhaps for Sarah Palin.
But now what? At the New York Times’ blog, Room for Debate, see this take on the Israeli-American relationship from Amjad Atallah:
The United States has been sending its messages with carrots and great diplomatic restraint. The current Israeli government, in stark contrast, has been responding like a petulant child, outraged that it hasn’t been able to get U.S. acquiescence to its own short-term political strategy.
Damn – the current Israeli government sounds like the current Republican Party. And Atallah adds this:
There is a great deal at stake in this public and private dispute between Israel and the United States. President Obama should consider responding in a similar manner, by creating his own facts on the ground, and ending all forms of U.S. cover and support of the settlement enterprise and other policies that sustain the occupation.
Andrew Sullivan agrees with that:
Amen. Cut off loan guarantees, suspend aid – threaten to remove the UN veto. But none of this has a chance to happening except the latter. The Congress won’t allow it – because the GOP’s Christianist wing wants a greater Israel to hasten Armageddon and because the Democrats are so scared of AIPAC.
But there was that mysterious telephone call McClatchy mentions, where Biden and Netanyahu try to work out some way to salvage something from this mess, and Politico reports that Biden wasn’t so scared:
“This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden castigated his [Israeli] interlocutors. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
Would President Palin think of such things, or will she, in the early months of 2013?
And this really didn’t make Netanyahu look every good, as explained by Politico’s Laura Rozen:
Many observers were skeptical that Netanyahu was as in the dark about the plan as he claimed to Biden.
“Either one believes Netanyahu and his friends in government (saying it is all misunderstanding and bad timing),” wrote Jerusalem Post blogger Shmuel Rosner. “In such case, one should be concerned by Israel’s chaotic decision-making process on delicate matters.”
“Or, one might choose not to believe,” Rosner continued. “One might think Netanyahu isn’t telling the truth, or that [Interior Minister] Yishai is bluffing. If it’s the former, one will conclude that Netanyahu has no intention of seriously exploring the just-announced peace negotiations. If it’s the latter one will realize that Shas and Yishai are strong enough to toy with Netanyahu as much as they want – as much as embarrassing the American [Vice President]! – without paying a price. Not an encouraging thought.”
And Andrew Sullivan adds this:
I cannot read Netanyahu’s mind. But I can observe Israel’s actions. They intend to occupy and colonize the entire West Bank for ever. They may allow some parceled enclaves for Palestinians, but they will maintain a big military presence on the Eastern border of West Bank, and they will sustain this with raw military power and force. I certainly cannot see any other rationale for their actions these past few years that makes any sense at all. Many Israeli politicians now use the term “apartheid” for this future.
Apartheid. Indeed. Well, we were the first to recognize Israel way back when, to be on the right side of history. But now, to stay there, we may need to disagree with them – if we can. And in spite of Biden’s strong words, that may be politically impossible, unless he decides to wear an Israeli flag-pin too.