By Sayed Dhansay
‘The worst diplomatic crisis in decades.’ These were the words used by Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, recently to describe the perceived rift between Israel and the Obama administration over Israel’s illegal settlement policy in occupied East Jerusalem.
It started when American Vice President Joe Biden visited Israel at the beginning of March to launch “proximity talks” between Israel and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas. After 14 months of stalled negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians following Israel’s devastating attack on Gaza, Abbas had finally received the go-ahead from the Arab League to restart talks with Israel.
Though the US routinely uses its veto power to shield Israel at the UN and has never taken concrete measures to curb its colonisation of Palestinian land, official US foreign policy purports to favour a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines.
On the very first day of Biden’s visit however, Israel announced the construction of 1,600 new settlement homes in yet another illegal housing project in occupied East Jerusalem. The controversial announcement attracted a storm of international criticism, triggered riots across the occupied West Bank and was seen as an insult and affront to Biden. Prominent columnist Akiva Eldar questioned in the Israeli daily Haaretz how Israel could “spit in Biden’s face” in such a manner.
The Middle East quartet also weighed in, denouncing the Israeli move with a strongly worded statement, while one of America’s top defence officials, General David Petraeus, also entered the furore. In an unusually stark political comment from a military official, Gen. Petraeus warned that Israel’s intransigence was harming American interests and endangering the lives of American soldiers throughout the Middle East.
Mahmoud Abbas refused to start the proximity talks and US envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell – responsible for kick-starting negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis — canceled his impending visit to the region. This was seen as a clear sign of American disapproval at Israel’s unilateral undoing of Mitchell’s hard work over the last year in getting the Israelis and Palestinians to the negotiating table.
The standoff was underscored a week later when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama in Washington in an effort to smooth over their differences. After two meetings, the leaders failed to reach consensus on a joint statement. Obama retired from the meetings without appearing for a photo op with his Israeli counterpart, and Netanyahu cancelled his media appearances scheduled for the following morning.
A White House spokesperson also rejected comments made by Netanyahu at his weekly cabinet meeting the previous day. “From our standpoint, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv,” the Prime Minister said.
While Israel has declared all of Jerusalem its “eternal, undivided capital”, the international community has never recognized Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and the territory is considered illegally occupied by Israel under international law.
“I think at one point the prime minister added that he did not see a distinction necessarily between building in Jerusalem and building in Tel Aviv. We disagree with that," the spokesman said bluntly ahead of the Washington meeting.
News and political circles were soon abuzz with the escalating public spat between America and one of its closest allies, with whom diplomatic relations are usually exceptionally warm. For those frustrated by America’s bias toward Israel, its massive military, economic and diplomatic support, and silence on its repeated violations of international law, the apparent cracks in the longstanding “special relationship” were a welcome sight to weary eyes.
This excitement proved to be short lived and unwarranted however.
Just days later, both Oren and Petraeus withdrew their comments and reaffirmed America’s “unwavering commitment” to Israel. At the same time, news emerged that the two countries had just sealed a “massive” arms deal, worth roughly a quarter billion dollars which would see the US supply Israel with three new military aircraft.
During that week, Washington also played host to the annual conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC. As America’s most senior diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warm reception and fervent speech at AIPAC 2010 is a more candid indication of the state of US-Israel ties.
“Thank you for that welcome. And it is wonderful to be back at AIPAC with so many good friends,” she gushed to the cheering crowd of thousands of America’s most hawkish pro-Israel campaigners. She then went on to congratulate AIPAC’s newly appointed president, Lee Rosenberg, before praising several of AIPAC’s directors individually by name for their good example of “citizen activism” and “furthering democracy.”
After the usual platitudes about America and Israel’s “common goals”, “common future” and shared values of “freedom, equality and democracy,” Clinton dove straight into reassuring the delegates of the Obama administration’s commitment to Israel.
To leave no doubts about his political resolve, Clinton evoked the success of the newly passed healthcare legislation after years of campaigning by Obama, and declared: “And let me assure you […] for President Obama and for me, and for this entire Administration, our commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid, unwavering, enduring and forever,” to rapturous applause.
Clinton then went on to praise Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement freeze as an “important first step,” although this has largely been a farce. Because the moratorium excludes East Jerusalem, “public buildings” and housing units that were already underway in the occupied West Bank, changes on the ground have been ineffectual in the eyes of Palestinians.
Furthermore, Netanyahu has publicly stated that settlement construction would resume at full pace after the expiration of the 10-month period. This was confirmed during his AIPAC speech when he defiantly declared: “The Jewish people were building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and we are building there now. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”
In her scant words of criticism for Israel, Clinton only ventured as far as saying that American policy does not accept the “legitimacy” of continued settlements. She stopped short of mentioning that they are indisputably illegal under international law, and widely accepted as the primary obstacle to achieving peace in the Middle East.
And if any doubt remained in the mind of her audience, she reminded them of the Obama administration’s proven track record of whitewashing Israeli crimes and its repeated interventions to ensure Israel’s evasion from the enforcement of international law.
“We did lead the boycott of the Durban Conference [against Racism] and we repeatedly voted against the deeply flawed Goldstone Report. This administration will always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself,” she said.
For those hoping that this short-lived diplomatic dust-up was a ray of hope for a more even-handed American policy in the Middle East, Clinton’s AIPAC appearance and other simultaneous developments suggest otherwise.
Indeed, Israel announced the construction of another 112 settlement homes just a day before Biden’s arrival, and a further 426 a week later without rousing any protest from the Americans. The implication therefore is that the whole outcry was more about the timing of the announcement, rather than its substance.
In addition, the US and Israel are more united on countering the growing Iranian nuclear threat than ever before. Good diplomatic relations with Israel in order to protect broader American interests in the Middle East is surely of much greater strategic importance to the Obama administration than Israel’s domestic settlement policy.
Furthermore, the US needs to choreograph “anger” at the Israelis from time to time in order to keep up the pretense of being an honest broker and keeping the so-called “peace process” with the collaborationist PA puppet regime on track. If the peace process charade breaks down permanently, western powers risk losing the loyal obedience of the PA for good, opening up the possibility for Palestinian national reconciliation.
Any potential political consensus between the PA and Hamas would signal disaster for the Americans and Israelis, who have worked overtime to demonise, isolate and exclude the Islamist organization from exercising their democratically earned place in the region’s politics.
The Obama administration has a tough task trying to reign in the most right-wing government in Israel’s history, while also attempting to maintain the pretense of a genuine peace process. The delicate act of balancing these considerations with its own interests is bound to agitate the US occasionally. To consider this squabble as anything more significant however is simply wishful thinking.
– Sayed Dhansay is based in South Africa. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.