Israel Deserves a Reprimand from the American Government

The Obama administration has every reason to object to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approving an expansion of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. If America wants to be an honest broker, it must criticize both the Israelis and the Palestinians when they cross a serious diplomatic line. The United States needs to rebuke Israel’s move out of a concern for pressing American interests in the Middle East. No less an authority than Gen. David Petraeus made a bold statement at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 16 that “a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel” weakens Arab moderates who want to cooperate with the U.S., strengthens Iran by bolstering its clients of Hizballah and Hamas, and plays into the hands of al-Qaeda.  This conclusion came from a briefing he delivered in January to Admiral Muke Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Not reacting sternly to a blatant Israeli provocation would have sunk the U.S. deeper into this trap. Conversely, by working constructively on the peace process and reprimanding Israel when it steps out of line, the United States can strengthen its Middle Eastern allies while disempowering its regional enemies.

Despite this obvious problem, the Israeli government, AIPAC, and members of Congress have repeatedly tried to justify a stupid decision. Avigdor Lieberman, a right-wing nationalist and Israel’s Foreign Minister, compared Israel building houses in East Jerusalem to New York Jews building houses in Queens. John McCain criticized the Obama administration for publicly disapproving of Israel’s decision by stating, “It might be well if our friends in the administration and other places in the United States could start refocusing our efforts on the peace process.”

Furthermore, McCain is wrong to suggest that the Obama administration has been ignoring the peace process. President Obama’s early start on attending to Israeli-Palestinian issues differentiates him from most American presidents in recent history (most sharply in contrast with his immediate predecessor). In January of 2009, Obama and Secretary of State of Hillary Clinton appointed George Mitchell, a respected veteran of the Northern Ireland peace process, as special envoy to the Middle East. Obama’s Cairo speech further cemented the importance of this foreign policy issue to his agenda. No serious observer blames the Obama administration for delaying the peace process. The profound internal political divisions among both the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Netanyahu government’s shortsighted calculation that it has more to gain by avoiding negotiations with the PLO than through engagement, and other factors are responsible for the current impasse.

For those who care about the peace process, the Israeli government’s decision can only be regarded as irresponsible. To begin, Israel hardly can claim a legal right to pursue a large dislocation project in East Jerusalem. Every nation and international body that has articulated a stand on the issue regards East Jerusalem, at least formally, as an “occupied territory.” After Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1980, no country recognized the move. Shortly thereafter, U.N. Resolution 478 declared the annexation to be in violation of international law and thus “null and void.” The violation has already received condemnation from around the Arab world and might cause the Palestinians to retreat from diplomacy with Israel. U.S. envoy George Mitchell was on the verge of beginning indirect talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In terms of brokering peace, the Obama administration was faced no with good options after Israel put it in a jam by making the announcement. To salvage American credibility, the U.S. needed to respond with a clear denunciation. The American demands Clinton is making of Netanyahu’s government are quite reasonable: shelve the building plans, avoid new provocations, agree to talk about “core issues” in the proximity talks, and offer some new concession to the Palestinians to show good faith.

As an American Jew with a personal attachment to Israel, it’s hard not to feel embarrassed for Israel when Ben-Artzi, Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, calls Obama “anti-Semitic” and says he “dislikes the people of Israel.” Netanyhau has thankfully distanced himself from Ben-Artzi’s comments, but the incident won’t endear Israel to an American public that is showing signs of being less reliably pro-Israel. I think a number of Israel’s friends feel similar. Thomas Friedman, who is generally a reliable supporter of Israel, went so far as to accuse Israel’s leaders of driving drunk with their reckless decision. At least Ms. Clinton had the wisdom to speak sternly to Netanyahu on the phone for three-quarters of an hour on March 12.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process is in bad shape. Netanyahu’s government made things much worse while simultaneously placing Israel’s most important ally in an embarrassing position. As a first step, the Obama administration was right to publicly denounce the construction plans. The U.S. saved face by preventing the tail from wagging the dog, supported its regional interests by positioning itself as an honest broker, and put welcome pressure on Netanyahu’s government to get serious about peace talks.