With nerves frayed after the worst U.S. - Israel diplomatic dust-up in years, Jewish leaders this week were trying to assess whether there has been a fundamental change in U.S. policy toward Jerusalem — or simply a change in tone by an ally frustrated by the long years of stalemate.
Predictably, opinion was divided, with some leaders suggesting a seismic shift by an administration that no longer regards Israel as a strategic asset — and others saying the only difference is a willingness to say publicly what U.S. officials have been saying privately for years.
“The ‘fundamental’ change appears to be that this administration is more up front with its frustrations over Israeli settlement policies that hinder Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts,” said Yossi Alpher, a strategic analyst in Israel. “The Biden incident revealed the critical mass of those frustrations.
“But this administration is as supportive of Israel as its predecessors,” Alpher continued. “It’s just telling Israel bluntly what most of us understand: that settlements are hurting our chances of being Jewish and democratic.”
The incident he was referring to was Israel’s announcement earlier this month that 1,600 new housing units would be built in a Jewish neighborhood of east Jerusalem. It came while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the capital city. The announcement was seen by the Obama administration as an “insult” to Biden, who had just announced the start of indirect Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The Palestinians abruptly canceled the talks, saying they would only come to the table when the housing project was abandoned.
The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, sees something more ominous in America’s reaction to Israel’s announcement.
“What I see is a new strategy in U.S. foreign policy that sees Israel today as less of an asset than it used to be,” Foxman said, asserting that since America is at war with extremist Islam, “somebody decided that rather than use Israel as an asset, it may be a liability and to distance oneself from it. ... To say that Israel may not be serving America’s security interests is dangerous nonsense.”
He was referring to prepared remarks by Gen. David Petraeus, head of the United States Central Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 16. Petraeus said the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” He added: “Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and people in the AOR [Area of Responsibility] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments at this week’s annual policy conference in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was simply a “softened version of what Gen. Petraeus said,” Foxman maintained. “But embarrassing Israel, singling it out in a world that is biased against it, does not serve the interests of peace and stability.”
`Undermines Mutual Trust’
In her remarks, Clinton told about 7,500 delegates — who were urged at the start of the conference to treat all speakers civilly — that “new construction in east Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need.”
Touching a nerve for pro-Israel leaders who argue that U.S. and Israeli interests are fundamentally the same, Clinton said that new construction in east Jerusalem “exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region could hope to exploit. And it undermines America’s unique ability to play a role — an essential role, I might add — in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally.”
The audience, which applauded lines underscoring support for Israel, listened quietly. There were no boos at any point in the 45-minute speech.
Also playing a role in the Obama administration’s action is the State Department’s belief that the “absence of an Israeli-Palestinian accord means it is harder for the Arab states to get behind the U.S. on other things we want to do,” according to Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
And the U.S. military, she said, considers the primary threats to the states in the region and concludes that Iran is a threat to Saudi Arabia.
“The Saudis are terrified by the specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon and they thought we or Israel would do something about it,” Bryen said. “Over the last few years, the Israelis and Saudis have shared signals. In 2006, the Saudis said the Lebanon War was Hezbollah’s fault. In 2009, it said Israel’s Gaza operation was because of Hamas shelling of Israel. So the Saudis don’t consider Israel to be the central problem, but anything the Saudis do that looks brave threatens their stability at home. As a result, they tell the U.S. that they would like to be better friends to the U.S. but can’t because of the Israel problem. ... Their goal is to ensure that they don’t get too far out there.”
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said that although it is very important to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “the notion that it has an impact on the Iranian issue I find questionable. We as Jews have a hundred reasons why we want peace between Israel and its neighbors, but those other connections are exceedingly speculative. Arab hostility to Israel is unrelated to any of the specifics on the ground.”
He said he was offended also by recent comments that “somehow suggest that Israel’s positions are responsible for the deaths of American soldiers or present a danger to Americans in combat. It’s an outrageous claim without foundation in reality.”
Rabbi Yoffie was referring to the comments of Petraeus and that of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was quoted as saying that Israel’s stubbornness makes the U.S. appear impotent. And in a statement later denied, Biden was quoted as telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month in Jerusalem: “What you are doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“These coordinated messages signal that the Obama administration is re-evaluating Israel’s usefulness,” concluded Linda Heard, a specialist writer on Middle East affairs writing in Gulfnews.com.
While it was unclear exactly what Netanyahu promised Washington as the price of defusing the recent crisis — and gaining his Tuesday night White House meeting – the Israeli leader was defiant on the issue of Jerusalem in his AIPAC speech.
“The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today,” he told the thousands of activists, members of Congress, administration officials and assorted political operatives at the AIPAC dinner. “Jerusalem is not a settlement; it’s our capital.”
Clinton had argued that the status quo was no longer tenable. She noted that there are rockets poised to strike Israel from the north and the south and that there is a growing Palestinian population surrounding Israel.
“These challenges cannot be ignored or washed away,” she said.
Just this week, a joint Palestinian-Israeli survey found that Palestinian support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has slipped from 64 percent in December to 57 percent. Growing in popularity is the idea of a binational state.
No Status Quo Alternative
But Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, argued that there is no viable alternative to the status quo.
“To say the status quo will not last does not provide an alternative,” he said. “The U.S. and others talk of a theoretical two-state solution that will make lives better. They said also that the Palestinian Authority under [Yasir] Arafat was supposed to work. Israelis need more than theory. There are fundamental problems here. It sounds patronizing for the U.S. to say this is what is best for Israel. All of their statements do not provide a foundation for a realistic and better alternative. And why should the Palestinians move [from their hardline position] when the Americans are putting pressure on Israel alone?”
The Obama’s administration tough approach to Israel through its blunt talk and public rebukes after the Biden fiasco caught many Israeli officials and AIPAC delegates by surprise. Chastising Israel in public, they said, could only undermine trust in U.S. peace efforts among a wary Israeli public.
But a longtime pro-Israel activist, who asked that his name not be used, said the reason for the tougher approach is that private rebukes do not work — especially with Netanyahu, an Israeli leader who has become adept at maneuvering around American demands.
“Of course the Israelis want disagreement to be private,” the activist said. “But the administration has come to realize that if you don’t say it publicly, it’s just not heard. ... Hillary Clinton changed the rules; she said it out loud, in public.”
Other analysts are not convinced there has been a sea change in America’s relations with Israel.
Martin Raffel, senior associate executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, pointed out that both countries face fundamentally the same thing — Iranian, Islamic extremism and a relatively weak Palestinian Authority.
“These challenges have not gone away and the U.S. and Israel are fundamentally on the same page in addressing them,” he said.
“This latest disagreement will not mark a dramatic new framing of the relationship because the world hasn’t changed. It’s clear the administration has gotten more assertive in trying to move Israel in a particular direction regarding its settlement policy, but these tensions go back decades. And they are not as sharp now as we saw 20 years ago during the loan guarantee dispute.”
Raffel was referring to the decision of President George H.W. Bush to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees from Israel to pressure it into curbing its settlement building in the West Bank.
“I believe this Israeli government would be prepared to make far reaching compromises if the Israeli public was persuaded there was a real opportunity to change the situation in fundamental ways,” Raffel said. “There is some room for cautious optimism. [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad has succeeded in moving the Palestinian state-building process forward from the ground up with improved security. It’s largely free of corruption and there is economic growth. ... This is a trend we ought to be encouraging and Israel is.”
Ben Cohen, associate director of communications of American Jewish Committee, said the exchanges he saw this week between Israeli and American officials in Washington lead him to believe that the two sides are “communicating constructively as friends.” He said that in her remarks, Clinton spoke of the “unbreakable bonds between the United States and Israel and said the U.S. is committed to Israel’s security. Where you might find distance is on the final status issues, particularly east Jerusalem.”
But Cohen pointed out that when Netanyahu announced a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank — excluding east Jerusalem — the move was “welcomed explicitly by the secretary of state and [Middle East envoy George] Mitchell.”
Gilbert Kahn, a political science professor at Kean University in Union, N.J., said he believes the Obama administration is simply applying pressure in an attempt to kick start the peace process.
“They find it much simpler pushing Israel to comply with their wishes than trying to ratchet up pressure on the Palestinians at this point,” he said. “The Israeli perception is that that’s not the way you go about business — that if you pressure Israel, the Arabs will just lay back and let the U.S. do all the work. You have to pressure Arabs, as well. But the Arabs say there is undue pressure on them, that America never pressures Israel.”
“There is a genuine commitment to try to move the process ahead,” Kahn added, “but I don’t see the U.S. having made any dramatic change away from its fundamental positions on Israel. Hillary Clinton’s speech pushed every reassurance button that was important to Israel, even as she made some blunt comments.”
James D. Besser is Washington correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.
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