By George S. Hishmeh – Washington, D.C.
The pro-Israel lobby and its supporters elsewhere in the U.S. are unashamedly turning their guns on Barack Obama in the wake of the U.S.-Israeli clash over the construction of 1600 new housing units for Jews in occupied Arab East Jerusalem on the eve of “proximity talks” between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority.
The showdown between the U.S. and Israel began when Vice President Joe Biden Jr., described in a leading Israeli paper as Israel’s “only friend in the White House,” was in the midst of talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem to kick-start the moribund peace negotiations with the Palestinians. But the embarrassing Israeli announcement about the new housing plan, which was bound to infuriate the Palestinians, shocked the visiting American and reverberated harshly in Washington.
Biden’s immediate condemnation of the Israeli action was quickly followed by a 45-minute call to the Israeli leader by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who had coordinated her message with the American president. She publicly labeled the Israeli measure as “insulting” and described it as “undermin(ing) trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests.” Besides her rebuke of Netanyahu, she declared in clear terms that “the Israeli government needed to demonstrate, not just through words, but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”
Although these “specific actions” were not disclosed, U.S. officials anonymously reported that these included a demand that Israel needs to make a substantial gesture to the Palestinians and publicly declare that all of the “core issues” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the status of Jerusalem, will be included in the upcoming talks.
The Obama administration’s reaction must have stunned Israel and its many influential friends in America. Elliot Abrams, a former White aide in the Bush administration, argued that the Obama administration “continues to drift away from traditional U.S. support for Israel.” He then went on to warn the American leader that “time and (Congressional) elections (in November) will correct that problem (because) Israel has a higher approval rating (in the U.S.) these days than does President Obama.”
In an editorial last Tuesday, The Washington Post spoke, critically, of “Mr. Obama’s quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government.” It warned that “if this episode (of the housing scheme) reinforces that image, Mr Obama will accomplish the opposite of what he intends.”
And this Saturday, the three-day annual conference in Washington of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, promises something to watch since Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu are scheduled speakers. Whether the encounter will register another confrontation or both will decide to let bygones be bygones remains to be seen. However, AIPAC has already lashed out at the Obama administration, calling on it to “make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests.”
Obama should not be intimidated by the outcry of the diehard supporters of Israel, who must understand, for one, that continued U.S. military aid, valued at three billion dollars a year is a factor that the Netanyahu government cannot simply overlook. He should also remember that American presidents in the past have had their own conflicts with Israel. President Eisenhower had ordered Israel – Britain and France – to halt their aggression on Egypt during the 1956 Suez War. In recent years, Aaron Miller, a former State Department official who had a role in Mideast peace-making, pointed out that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Jimmy Carter and Secretary of State James Baker were “the only three Americans to ever produce anything in Arab-Israeli peace making.” He explained: “Each made clear that there was a cost to saying no to the superpower, and in the process they advanced American, Israeli and Arab interests.”
President Obama can do the same and he has support even from several American Jewish groups and some Israelis. J Street, a recently formed American Jewish lobby that describes itself as "pro-peace" and "pro-Israel, “delivered a message to the White House and Capitol Hill that “the time has come for strong action, not more talk.” The continued intransigence of Israel can no longer be tolerated and as Columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last Sunday that Netanyahu “needs to make up his mind whether he wants to make history or once again be a footnote to it.” In other words, his political demise is not far-fetched unless he realizes that continued colonization of Palestinian territory cannot continue unchecked and the sooner he negotiates a two-state settlement the better for all parties.
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.