by Phyllis Bennis
So far the requests [by President Obama to Prime Minister Netanyahu] have gone like this:
Obama: Please freeze settlements.
Obama: Please freeze settlements.
Obama: Please freeze some settlements.
Obama: Please freeze just a few settlements, not including Jerusalem, just for a short time.
Netanyahu: Well, maybe…No.
Then Obama stopped asking.
Real pressure sounds like this:
Obama: Please freeze all the settlements, since they’re all illegal under international law, as a reasonable first step towards ending the occupation.
Obama: Okay. Then you know that $30 billion in military assistance former President Bush agreed to give you, and I agreed to implement? You can kiss that goodbye. Call me if you change your mind.
The tensions that erupted during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel a couple of weeks ago are indeed real. Biden and the Obama administration see the Israeli action as a slap in the face, a poke in the eye, a smack upside the head…choose your preferred metaphor. The problem is, Washington’s outrage was 90 percent about timing, and only 10 percent about substance – that is, the administration was insulted because the announcement that Israel had just approved building 1,600 new settlement housing units in occupied Arab East Jerusalem surprised Biden during his visit. Only about 10 percent of the concern seemed to focus on the settlement expansion itself.
But the dust-up occurred while the Obama administration faces new challenges to its Middle East policy. In the region Arab allies have pulled away from Washington, recognizing that they can no longer pacify furious populations. The Arab League refused to endorse Palestinian participation in a new round of “proximity talks,” and the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority itself said no talks without a complete settlement freeze. In Washington there is a growing chorus of influential voices finally admitting that the longstanding U.S. policy of uncritical embrace of Israel, with unchallenged military, economic, legal and diplomatic support and protection, wasn’t serving U.S. interests. That means considering the possibility – gasp! – that maybe, just maybe, Israeli and U.S. interests aren’t always identical.
Now the Pentagon’s most influential general, David Petraeus, has admitted that the widespread public view of the U.S. as Israel’s backer in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines U.S. strategic goals in the region– widely interpreted to mean it puts U.S. troops at risk. He is backed up by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as well as Biden.
A no-brainer, yes, for any high-schooler paying attention to a current events lesson. But that obvious strategic reality has almost never been acknowledged by military leaders, who have in the past been unwilling to challenge their civilian counterparts’ pro-Israeli assumptions and strategies, even if they didn’t share them. (It should be clear that Petraeus’ own framework for criticizing the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” has nothing to do with international law, human rights, or justice – it is a military judgment aimed at strengthening the U.S. military occupations and control of the strategic region.)
And it’s not only the military and political elites. A new Zogby pollindicates that almost two-thirds of Democrats believe in the statement “Israeli settlements are built on land confiscated from Palestinians and should be torn down and the land returned to Palestinian owners.” Within the Jewish community, AIPAC can no longer claim that it’s speaking for a monolithic Jewish bloc. (There never was such a bloc, of course, but few were willing to challenge AIPAC’s claim to speak for it.) The shift in elite opinion sets the terms for policy changes once thought impossible.
Some Israeli leaders are already recognizing the new discourse in Washington. The influential Israeli analyst Akiva Eldar wrote in Ha’aretzthat “as far as President Barack Obama and his senior advisers are concerned, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to blame for nothing less than damaging the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East and the Muslim world.” That’s a lot worse than just being blamed for the delay in starting a new round of so-called “proximity talks.”
Influential New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, long viewed as an echo chamber for Washington’s mainstream pro-Israel voices, weighed in with the new admission that for Israelis, peace with the Palestinians is not a necessity but has become a hobby. Newsweek noted that Israelis are dismissing the need for peace with the Palestinians because they already have it on their own terms: “While the global recession plunged other countries into crisis in the past year, nearly all of Israel’s indicators have held steady. Tourism, a good gauge of overall welfare, hit a 10-year high in 2008. Astonishingly, the IMF projected recently that Israel’s GDP will grow faster in 2010 than that of most other developed countries. In short, Israelis are enjoying a peace dividend without a peace agreement…Israelis have intellectually disengaged from peacemaking.”
Certainly Israelis are doing fine with the status quo. There are few Israeli victims, and indeed the occupation doesn’t affect their daily lives. But that reality is already changing, as the international BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns are gaining strength and beginning to bite. The BDS movement, launched in a global call from Palestinian civil society in 2005, is transforming how Israel – and the rest of the world – define Palestinian resistance to occupation and apartheid. Although the core of Palestinian resistance has always included nonviolent mobilization, acts of armed resistance over the years largely determined how that movement was perceived. The BDS movement, along with the turn away from armed struggle by resistance organizations in recent years, is rapidly changing that perception.
Israel’s international diplomatic isolation is growing as well. In last week’s Human Rights Council decisions, only the U.S. voted to protect Israel from the otherwise unanimous support for “the inalienable, permanent and unqualified right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, including their right to live in freedom, justice and dignity and to establish their sovereign, independent, democratic and viable contiguous State.” The council also reaffirmed its “support for the solution of two States, Palestine and Israel, living side by side in peace and security; stresses the need for respect for and preservation of the territorial unity, contiguity and integrity of all of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem; and urges all Member States and relevant bodies of the United Nations system to support and assist the Palestinian people in the early realization of their right to self-determination.” The wide European support for this resolution was particularly significant, given the current negotiations underway to allow Israel to join key European institutions.
The question now is whether the Obama administration is prepared to recognize that there is a new reality at home as well as in the region. Whatever we may think of the past, holding Israel accountable for violations of international and U.S. law is no longer tantamount to political suicide in Washington. We haven’t yet seen evidence of any such recognition. Despite real anger regarding the settlement issue, the administration’s response has been limited to verbal criticism and demands (albeit far harsher in tone than normal). It’s as if someone told Obama and his top officials that simply upping the ante of requests is enough to bring Israel around. But they were wrong.