23 March 2010
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, 22 March 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)
The speeches at AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group, on Monday by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Netanyahu's subsequent meeting with US President Barack Obama are widely seen as drawing to a close what Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren called the "most severe crisis in US-Israel relations" in decades. This rapprochement comes on the heels of a series of seemingly angry statements top members of the Obama Administration released, after Israel announced construction of 1,600 new illegal housing units in occupied East Jerusalem while US Vice President Joe Biden was in the country.
In fact, the basis for the Obama Administration's criticisms of the settlement announcement -- as well as the significance of the crisis itself -- has been widely misconstrued by both supporters and critics of Israel. AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) were "shocked and stunned" that Biden and Clinton called the Israeli announcement "insulting." AIPAC urged the administration to "take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state" and "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel." Meanwhile, the ADL mused, "One can only wonder how far the US is prepared go in distancing itself from Israel."
Voices more critical of Israel, such as Richard Dreyfuss of The Nation, suggested that "this is not just the reaction to an insulting announcement during the visit of Vice President Biden," but rather "the Obama Administration is beginning to realize that Israeli intransigence ... is a major obstacle to US policy in the region." Dreyfuss predicted that this "might turn into the most significant confrontation between the United States and Israel" since the 1956 Suez War.
Contrary to both of these positions, the Obama Administration merely reacted to a diplomatic affront it was dealt by the Israeli government. Israel's announcement came on the same day that Biden had arrived in the country to proudly confirm the US' "absolute, total and unvarnished" commitment to its ally, and commence indirect talks with the Palestinians. Following the announcement, protests and violent clashes broke out in Jerusalem and elsewhere throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Responding to this pressure, the Arab League threatened to cancel its endorsement of the indirect negotiations, with Secretary Amr Moussa even announcing that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had decided not to participate in the talks. As the endorsement was the only political cover Abbas had to re-enter negotiations, the US administration took careful notice of these events as pressure on Abbas to abandon talks from within the territories mounted. With the Arab world outraged and Biden humiliated due to the degree of US complicity that the timing of the announcement revealed, the Obama Administration was forced to react.
Clinton said the timing of the announcement was "insulting," while top aide David Axelrod called it an "affront" that "seemed calculated" to undermine the peace talks. The Obama Administration hopes that this PR display will allow the US to fortify its farcical claim to be an "honest broker" in the peace process, provide Abbas the political cover to re-enter negotiations, and send a message to the Israeli government that American leaders are to be treated with respect. As CNN reported, Netanyahu has now set up a team to investigate why the settlement construction announcement was made during Biden's visit.
Netanyahu may well have been telling the truth when he claimed to be "surprised" by the public criticisms by the US government. The day before, one day after US envoy George Mitchell arrived to broker newly-announced "proximity talks," the State Department explicitly approved Israel's construction of 112 new apartments in an illegal settlement outside Bethlehem. The assent came despite Netanyahu's declaration of a "moratorium" on settlement building, which he has insisted cannot include such illegal construction in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, a position the US has accepted.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also chastised Israel for its "provocative actions," including record-high rates of stripping Palestinians from Jerusalem their residency rights and infringements on Palestinian religious sites that are clearly designed to incite a Palestinian response or otherwise make it impossible for Abbas to return to the negotiating table. Yet even when the administration was at its most critical of Israel, following Obama's speech in Cairo last year, Israel was reassured that the actions taken by the US would be "largely symbolic." Indeed, Obama unconditionally re-authorized the loan guarantees program and massive US aid -- conservatively estimated at $7 million per day -- has continued without threat of reduction.
Obviously, the Obama Administration is hardly concerned about Israeli violations of international law, previous agreements it has signed, or the human rights of the Palestinians. The implication throughout is that had the announcement come a week before Biden visited (or even a day before, as the Bethlehem announcement did) there would have been no problem. Indeed, just one week later, after the Israeli government announced construction on an additional 426 East Jerusalem settlement homes, Clinton "bolstered her support for the Jewish state," according to The Washington Post. The Israeli army then opened fire on peaceful protestors in Gaza twice in two days, and carried out air strikes on targets in Gaza, while Clinton issued another statement saying that the steps offered by the Israeli government to resolve the dispute were "useful and productive."
The escalating repression continued Sunday, when the Israeli army shot and killed four Palestinian youths in 24 hours in the West Bank, two aged 18 and two 16. Simultaneously, Netanyahu issued a statement proclaiming that Israel would never cease building illegally in East Jerusalem as Ban Ki-moon arrived in Israel. Clearly, recent condemnations of these projects as "illegal" by Ban and the European Union did not stop Obama from welcoming Netanyahu to Washington on Monday with a private meeting, nor Clinton from proudly sharing the stage with him at the AIPAC conference to reaffirm the US commitment to support Israel's rejection of the international consensus for resolving the conflict. Though she did say the settlements "undermine mutual trust," she did not acknowledge their illegality and mostly stressed the threat that US support for them poses to its "credibility" as an "honest broker," thus urging Israel to refrain from such flagrantly provocative behavior while reinforcing that the US-Israel relationship is "rock solid."
The US hopes that this pretended outrage will lend its role as "honest broker" enough credibility to keep the "peace process" moving, itself merely a PR facade that shields Israeli crimes from public scrutiny. If it does not, the US will undoubtedly pay little mind to the harsh words spoken this week and do as it has done before: blame the Palestinians for its failure and support Israeli repression.
Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School of International Service who has lived in the West Bank, and is currently writing his masters' thesis, "The New Nakba: Oslo and the End of Palestine," on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has been appeared in Extra!, ZNet and other publications. His blog is www.rationalmanifesto.blogspot.com.