Israel Holds the Whip Hand

15 March 2010

Israel Holds the Whip Hand

By Gwynne Dyer

The very public row over the Israeli government’s humiliation of US Vice-President Joe Biden has led to excited speculation that the US government might actually defy Israel this time. Don’t hold your breath.

The White House has not actually prevailed in a policy dispute with Israel since 1991, when George Bush Senior’s government denied loan guarantees to Israel until it stopped expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. However, Bush believes that his action cost him the 1992 election, and the settlements were soon growing again.

Bill Clinton took umbrage when Israeli prime minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu lectured and hectored him during their first meeting in 1997. “Who’s the superpower here?” Clinton asked. But he never dared to put real pressure on Bibi even when he disapproved of his policies – which he generally did.

Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week was meant to bestow Washington’s blessing on “indirect” talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority: that is, “proximity” talks in which the Palestinians and the Israelis, both in the same building, would each talk to American mediators but not directly to each other. It was a clumsy arrangement, but the best that the White House could do.

Binyamin Netanyahu became Israel’s prime minister again a month after Barack Obama took office. Obama had promised to kick-start Middle East peace negotiations, but Neyanyahu led a right-wing coalition that would collapse if he made any major concessions about Jewish settlements in West Bank. It was never going to be a comfortable relationship.

Obama had already got Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to agree to new peace talks by promising him that Israel would stop building new Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. That was a bottom line for the Palestinians, who had watched the Jewish population of the West Bank double to almost 500,000 people in more than 100 settlements since the Oslo Accords (the start of the “peace process”) were signed in 1993.

So Obama asked Netanyahu to “freeze” further construction in the settlements. Netanyahu ignored his request for four months, and then offered a “temporary” ten-month halt to new construction in the West Bank – but work would continue on 3,000 new housing units already under construction and on infrastructure projects.

This was a far cry from what Obama had requested, but he acknowledged defeat and switched his efforts to forcing the Palestinians to accept less than half a loaf. Mahmoud Abbas could not submit to this rebuff without committing political suicide, and so the direct peace talks Obama had envisaged were downgraded to “proximity” talks.

This arrangement entirely suited Netanyahu, whose main goal is to avoid a US-backed peace proposal that involves a halt to the current rapid growth of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian occupied territories, or even a retreat from them. So he didn’t need the political ambush that wrecked Joe Biden’s visit last week, and he probably didn’t plan it.

While Biden was still in Israel, the interior ministry announced a decision by a Jerusalem district planning committee to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in occupied East Jerusalem. It made both Mahmoud Abbas and Joe Biden look like fools – and even if Netanyahu did not intend the insult, he refused to cancel the plan. He just apologised for the poor timing.

Vice-President Biden was very cross: “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. The announcement…is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Israeli move was “an insult to the US,” and told Netanyahu by phone on Friday that it was “a deeply negative signal” about the US-Israeli relationship.

“This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region,” said David Axelrod, one of President Obama’s closest aides. “For this announcement to come at that time was very destructive.” And the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, told consular staff that it is a crisis “of historic proportions” in US-Israeli relations, the worst in 35 years.

Really? So now Obama will start slowing down deliveries of American arms and cash to the Israeli state until Netanyahu comes to heel? Democratic members of Congress, already terrified of their re-election prospects in November, will nevertheless act in ways that bring the wrath of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the strongest advocacy group in the country, down on their heads?

Not very likely. After a few days this whole episode will probably be swept under the carpet, Abbas will be hung out to dry, and normal US service to Israel will be resumed. Just as it always is.

Back in 1982, President Ronald Reagan, one of Israel’s warmest supporters, worried aloud to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin that some US Congressmen were getting uneasy about Israeli actions in the war in Lebanon. (This was the time of the Sabra-Chatila massacres of Palestinians, carried out by Israel’s Lebanese Christian allies, apparently with Israeli connivance.)

“Don’t worry about the Hill, Ron,” Begin said. “I’ll take care of that.” Netanyahu can take care of it, too.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2, 3 and 11. (“The White…did”; and “Vice-…relationship”)