It was supposed to blow over, but it didn’t – Vice President Biden goes to Israel to do the usual we-stand-by-you thing – just so they don’t get nervous and go off and nuke everything they can find in Iran and get our troops in the Middle East killed in the inevitable massive, angry payback, which might also include someone trying to blow up Chicago and Houston and maybe Cleveland. And the secondary message was clear – Israel’s appropriation of disputed lands, where the Palestinians seem to be living, is making any sort of peace talks kind of difficult. And most of the Muslim world – Arabs and Persians and all the rest – find those appropriations really, really irritating. There ought to be a Palestinian state, with real borders and everything – even George Bush said so. Moving toward that, even a little, would lower the temperature in the region quite a bit. So the secondary message was cool it with the settlements – we think we’ve convinced the Palestinians to agree to sit down and talk this over. Could you at least put those on hold for now?
But Prime Minister Netanyahu was having none of that – it was Hi Joe, nice to see you, and by the way, we’ve just started the process of building sixteen hundred brand new apartments in the disputed area of East Jerusalem, no matter what you say, or any UN mandates we said we agreed to, or any previous Roadmap to Peace agreements, and no matter what all the other western nations think – and if you’re worried about the safety of your troops, and the safety of the United States itself, well, that’s your problem, not ours – and by the way, thanks for the billions each month in foreign aid and all the military gizmos, and could we have more, please?
It was either a boneheaded diplomatic mistake to announce the new settlements just then, or a calculated public humiliation of the Obama administration.
It seemed to be the latter, with an obvious message – we trust Dick Cheney, and always have, and think Sarah Palin should be president, not you, and we have our lobby, the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has lined up most of your own congress against you, along with the evangelical Christian right and the bomb-the-world-into-whimpering-submission neoconservatives who still miss the glory days of George Bush. And our American friends of that sort will accuse anyone who agrees with anything you do about any of this of being disgustingly anti-Semitic and obviously a fan of Hitler.
In short, Netanyahu knew he had Obama by the short hairs, and sneering at Biden sent that message – you will do what we want, you have no choice.
Yes, Biden pushed back, and Secretary of State Clinton ripped Netanyahu a new asshole, but she had to back down:
The United States on Tuesday reassured Israel the two countries enjoy an “unshakeable bond” but maintained pressure for renewed Israeli commitment to peace talks with the Palestinians.
“We have an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, moving to quell a diplomatic spat that has rocked ties between Washington and its closest Middle East ally.
But our Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell put off plans to return to the region – no one wanted to talk to anyone now, so there was no point in flying over – and Clinton gamely said, again, that it was time for Israel to show it was serious about new peace moves. But that was a joke. Why would they do anything at all? Netanyahu did say sorry, bad timing with the settlements announcement, but said work on those buildings is starting right now.
And there were the riots:
The discord between the United States and Israel over Jewish building in East Jerusalem deepened Tuesday with Israeli officials rejecting demands by Washington and expressing anger over the public upbraiding of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the Obama administration. On a day of scattered – although, in spots, fierce – disturbances by Palestinians in East Jerusalem, news emerged that Israel was moving ahead with a second building project there.
But that’s good local politics – shoot a few dozen screaming and enraged Palestinians and Netanyahu stays in office.
On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”
The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’ instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.” But Petraeus wasn’t finished: two days after the Mullen briefing, Petraeus sent a paper to the White House requesting that the West Bank and Gaza (which, with Israel, is a part of the European Command – or EUCOM), be made a part of his area of operations. Petraeus’ reason was straightforward: with U.S. troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military had to be perceived by Arab leaders as engaged in the region’s most troublesome conflict.
Joe Klein at Time’s Swampland comments:
The neoconservatives who worship General David Petraeus may not be too pleased with this – a briefing Petraeus prepared for his boss, Admiral Mike Mullen, on the regional problems being raised by Israel’s intransigence on the settlements issue. If Israel were taking a moral position that upset the regional Arabs, like defending its right to exist (a limited strike in self-defense against the Hamas rocketers in Gaza, for example), I’d say that Arab disapproval would be a geo-strategic cost that we, as Israel’s ally, would have to live with.
But this is different: Israel is clearly in the wrong and, according to the Petraeus briefing, it is hurting American foreign policy in the region. In fact, Israel is doubly wrong: its non-stop lobbying for war with Iran is also exceedingly dangerous (the US Joint Chiefs of Staff have unanimously counseled against war with Iran). The fact that David Petraeus – a hero to many on the right – is concerned about Israel’s intransigence should give AIPAC and the neocons pause. It won’t, but it should.
The America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has done a very unwise thing: It has issued a statement criticizing the Obama Administration, rather than Israel, for its reaction to the Netanyahu government’s recent announcement of more illegal settlement blocks in East Jerusalem–an announcement that was made during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit last week, an act of extreme rudeness on top of its unquestioned illegality.
The AIPAC statement is here and Klein adds this:
This is quite remarkable. I may be wrong… but I can’t remember another ethnic or religious lobbying group publicly siding with a foreign country against the President of the United States – especially when the country in question is engaging in behavior that the international community believes is illegal. Once again, every U.S. President since Richard Nixon has called for a freeze of settlements being built in Palestinian areas, including East Jerusalem, conquered by Israel in 1967. AIPAC stands, with Israel, against every one of those Presidents.
That is curious, but every president since Nixon was obviously just blowing smoke, and Obama seems not to get it – sometimes you just say things that sound cool to the right parties – you don’t really do anything.
Of course Klein hopes AIPAC comes to its senses soon, and also knows that is not going to happen:
I suspect it wants a showdown with the Obama Administration, which, unlike its Bush predecessor, has stood with the rest of the world in requesting that Israel adhere to Road Map laid out by the so-called quartet (the US, EU, UN and Russia), a plan the West Bank Palestinians seem to be taking seriously. This is an attempt by AIPAC to show muscle and force the Obama Administration to back down: Israel has tremendous support in the United States, especially among Evangelicals (who believe that the achievement of a Greater Israel – that is, the annexation of Palestinian lands – would be a precursor of the Rapture).
As an American Jew, I find this extremely embarrassing and unfortunate. This could get very, very ugly.
Oh, it’s ugly enough already. See Glenn Greenwald:
Here we have a major split between the U.S. and Israel, with key American military and political leaders explaining … that Israeli actions are directly harming U.S. interests and jeopardizing American lives. And what is the reflexive, unambiguous response of virtually every American Israel-centric neocon? To side with Israel over the United States. AIPAC, the ADL, Elliott Abrams, AIPAC-loyal Democrats in the House, Marty Peretz, Commentary, etc. etc. all quickly castigated the U.S. Government and defended Israel, notwithstanding the dangers to Americans posed by Israeli conduct and the massive price paid by the U.S. in so many ways for this relationship (by contrast, J Street called the administration’s anger towards Israel both “understandable and appropriate”).
He provides links to all those who side with Israel on this matter, if you want to read all that. It’s all pretty much the same, but Greenwald adds this:
There’s nothing wrong with taking Israel’s side per se – one is and should be free to criticize one’s own government in its foreign policy – but incidents like this make it increasingly futile to try to suppress what is glaringly visible: that (as is true for numerous groups in the U.S.) a significant segment of the neoconservative Right (which includes some evangelical Christians and some American Jews) are guided in their political advocacy by their emotional, religious, and cultural attachment to another country, and want U.S. policy shaped to advance that devotion.
He also covers “the long-standing effort to equate those who make this observation with anti-Israel hatred or even anti-Semitism” – but that’s just detail. You could spend hours browsing such stuff. It’s all rather predictable.
Greenwald doesn’t cover the obvious however. As you recall, Rush Limbaugh famously said he hopes Obama fails – he didn’t care if everything in America fell apart and the economy collapsed or anything else, as long as Obama fails, because Obama is evil. And you recall that when Obama flew to Oslo to try to convince the Olympic Committee that the 2016 Games should be held in Chicago, and they awarded the games to Rio, the folks in the offices of the Weekly Standard stood and cheered, and every talking head on Fox News said now we know the guy is an ineffectual jerk – it’s good that America lost this, because it was bad for Obama, and now we see what he is. And Jim DeMint famously said healthcare reform would fail and that would be Obama’s Waterloo – the Republican Party would “break him.” Yes, that would mean the number of Americans without any healthcare coverage at all would rise to fifty million or more – and maybe that was a loss, but Obama would be broken, and that would be for the greater good. But healthcare reform may pass, so now, with this, if Israel does these things and thousands of our troops get killed in huge coordinated attacks, or Chicago gets nuked, you have to think of the greater good – Obama will be toast. There’s a pattern here.
And then there’s Joe Lieberman, and his buddy John McCain. In this item Andrew Sullivan says it really is weird watching hawkish politicians who are usually castigating Obama for weakness with respect to foreign leaders suddenly turning around and accusing the president of standing up for America’s interests:
Lieberman questioned why the initial flap was allowed to continue on the Sunday talk shows. Singling out David Axelrod, he noted that calling it an “affront” serves nobody’s interests. From there, McCain said the escalation “may be giving the impression to the wrong people, the neighbors of Israel have stated time after time that they are bent on Israel’s extinction.”
McCain and Lieberman previously went to Israel itself to undermine the foreign policy of the US president, by stating that they would bar any attempt to use aid or loan guarantee leverage against Israel in its continuing aggressive settlement policy.
And Sullivan is not happy with Fred Hiatt, who had turned the Washington Post editorial page into a home for every neoconservative who misses Bush. There this is all the fault of the United States alone:
A larger question concerns Mr. Obama’s quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government. He is not the first president to do so; in fact, he is not even the first to be hard on Mr. Netanyahu. But tough tactics don’t always work: Last year Israelis rallied behind Mr. Netanyahu, while Mr. Obama’s poll ratings in Israel plunged to the single digits. The president is perceived by many Israelis as making unprecedented demands on their government while overlooking the intransigence of Palestinian and Arab leaders. If this episode reinforces that image, Mr. Obama will accomplish the opposite of what he intends.
In other words, the success or failure of the US president’s foreign policy in the Middle East should be measured by his ratings in Israel, rather than his determination of the national interest of the United States. How on earth did this get so upside down?
And Sullivan, citing one Carl in Jerusalem, notes that the Republican Party is lining up behind the Netanyahu government against the president of the United States:
America’s first post-partisan President anyone? Maybe it was George H. W. Bush. He managed to unite everyone against him, at least on Israel. Unfortunately, most of the Democrats are putting party over principle in this dispute – at least so far.
Ah, Obama picked on Israel to make the Democrats look good, or something. And Eric Cantor is saying that asking the Israeli government to stop provocative settlement building, as a way to build trust toward peace negotiations, is “beyond irresponsible.” He won’t condemn the planned Jerusalem settlement. Bring it on.
And Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal accuses the Obama administration of creating a diplomatic crisis with Israel for no good reason:
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.
No, the settlements aren’t “the” key obstacle to peace. But they are an obstacle to peace. And with the most moderate Palestinian leadership in the West Bank in history, provocative moves like the one Netanyahu’s government undertook appear designed to undercut progress toward a peace agreement.
The Journal is right that any realistic peace deal will have to readjust the 1967 borders. But the readjustment works both ways. And you’re never going to be able to get a stable Palestinian government that can maintain or even reach a peace agreement without some kind of claim to shared control over Jerusalem – not the pre-1967 split, but something. That’s why continued expansion in east Jerusalem is so problematic. The notion that this administration is adopting a European-like posture is absurd – nobody has proposed eliminating or even fundamentally altering American aid and diplomatic support for Israel.
And he says this editorial in Ha’aretz gets it about right:
There is one reason for the crisis: Netanyahu’s persistence in continuing construction in East Jerusalem, in placing Jews in Arab neighborhoods and evicting Palestinians from their homes in the city. This is not a matter of timing but substance. Despite repeated warnings and bitter experiences, he stokes the flames over the conflict’s most sensitive issue and is bound to get himself in trouble. Netanyahu has made it clear by his actions that American support for Israel, especially essential now in light of the Iranian threat, is less important to him than the chance to put another few Jews in the Sheikh Jarrah or Ramat Shlomo neighborhoods. …
Clinton made clear to Netanyahu that it was impossible to expand Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and also enjoy America’s friendship. Netanyahu’s flip-flopping games have come to an end. Even at the price of risks involving domestic party politics, he should opt for what is in the national interest and act to strengthen American support for Israel.
But Matthew Yglesias doesn’t think that Israel is at much risk of blow-back over here:
The current government in the West Bank is probably the most moderate we’ve ever seen, while Israel is governed by a right/far-right coalition that’s the least moderate we’ve ever seen. But of course the bulk of voters don’t pay attention to this sort of thing. So I think Congress is less likely than ever to question the upside-down nature of the US-Israel client-superpower dynamic.
Sullivan isn’t happy with all this:
The Israeli government is preventing the US president from achieving a core goal of his election: reorienting the US relationship with the Muslim world, reaching out to moderate Muslims, defusing the appeal of Jihadism, and securing a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. And where does AIPAC and the Congress stand? With Netanyahu – against Obama.
The answer is obvious, but in Commentary, Noah Pollak tells Obama these folks will bring it on:
All the pro-Israel heavies are coming to D.C. in a few days for the AIPAC policy conference, the single most important event of the year for the pro-Israel community. And now Obama has set it up so that pretty much the only thing people are going to be talking about is this crisis – and not just talking, but planning how to push back.
And John Cole responds to that:
The reason AIPAC has so much sway with Congress is because the American people honestly have no idea who or what AIPAC is, and having them trying to act as a co-equal branch of government could be quite, shall we say, illuminating…
Ah, but it’s complicated, and no one is paying attention. But at Real Clear World, Kevin Sullivan thinks they should:
I challenge the increasingly marginal number of pundits, politicians and bloggers who are blaming this incident on the Obama administration to explain to me exactly where and how Obama has changed US policy on Israel in any material or substantive fashion. Joe Biden went over to Israel to make nice and say in no uncertain terms that “there is no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security” against the Islamic Republic of Iran…
For some reason which clearly escapes me, there is a faction – albeit a tiny one – pinning blame for the fallout on the Obama administration. Worse yet, this same faction for the most part believes that this event is somehow consistent with a record of disinterest or hostility toward a nation that hasn’t had any aid guarantees seriously challenged since 2005, while President Bush was still in office.
It is odd. But in The American Interest, Walter Russell Mead offers some advice:
President Obama needs to do two things now in this dispute. He must stand tall, and he must settle quick.
He cannot afford a humiliating climb down in the face of Israeli pressure, but it is unlikely that either Congress or Jacksonian America will back him in a long and divisive struggle. Israel on the other hand cannot welcome a bitter controversy that will polarize American public opinion and damage Israel’s image, perhaps irreparably, among the liberal constituencies who were once its strongest source of support.
But whatever happens in the Washington policy wars, one thing should be clear. This is not a battle between “the Jews” and the rest of the United States over our policy in the Middle East. It is a battle between opposing conceptions of America’s interests in the Middle East, and gentiles and Jews can be found on both sides.
But Sullivan, thinking Obama will have to back down, worries that this will not go well:
The terrifying prospect is that Israel’s religious fanatics join forces with America’s religious fanatics to destroy any hope of peace in the Middle East or of America’s regaining the role of an honest broker between the parties. Actually, of course, that has already happened.
But resisting the logic of this cycle of religious violence is one reason Obama was elected. Preventing the escalation will not be easy. But one humiliation over the settlements was bad enough for US power. Two humiliations would be devastating to America’s position in the Middle East. Alas, the Republican right believe in Israel’s right to do anything anywhere almost as strongly as they believe in pre-emptive war, unlimited presidential power, the fusion of religion and politics, and torture at home.
And maybe Israel will come first, and America perishes – which seems to be what some want, for political ends, or religious ends, or because they’re just not thinking – unless Obama adopts a new narrative. Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Friends don’t let friends drive Fords. There are lots of variations. And friends don’t let friends plunge the world in endless wars. Hey, what are friends for?