Change We Can Believe In for U.S.-Israeli Relations?

News & Politics

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is coming to Washington on May 18, for his first official visit with President Obama. If Obama is serious about achieving a two-state solution in his first term, and therefore serious about bringing real pressure to bear on Israel, there will be no better time to do so.*

Obama, who has strongly supported the idea of a two-state solution since his campaign, has yet to articulate whether or not he is actually prepared to spend some of his massive political capital to exert serious pressure on Israel towards that end - for example, by conditioning (even some) of the currently committed $30 billion in U.S. military aid to a complete Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank. If he means it, this could be the moment. Netanyahu's campaign rejection of the two-state solution, his rejection of continuing the current Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and instead limiting negotiations to economic issues, and his extreme racist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman all serve to make a serious U.S. effort towards Israeli accountability not only timely, but less politically costly than ever.

But there are serious dangers ahead.

We still don't know for sure whether President Obama is indeed serious.

There is little question he supports a two-state solution in the abstract, but that isn't enough. The question is: What he is willing to do to make it happen? Israel on its own, secure in its so-far unconditional U.S. military aid and uncritical protection in the UN and elsewhere, has no intention of making efforts to that end.

What if Obama accepts a meaningless Netanyahu gesture as a significant concession?

In recent days, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agencydescribes it, the White House is indicating that "Netanyahu has shown seriousness about accommodating Obama's push for renewed talks with the Palestinians." If the U.S. demand is simply that Israel renew talks, Obama will have failed the first test; "talks" have been the hallmark of at least 18 years of failed U.S.-backed Middle East diplomacy. "Talks," including the Madrid, Oslo "Road Map" and other agreements, have left the Palestinians with virtually nothing on the ground except for a virtually powerless "Palestinian Authority," expanding settlements, checkpoints, theft of land and water, the separation Wall in the West Bank, and the complete physical and human devastation of Gaza. Without an entirely different U.S. role - one based on explicit support for international law as the basis of any negotiations - a new round of talks will go nowhere.

Another version of this scenario might be a sudden reversal of Netanyahu's current position, where he re-embraces the idea of a two-state solution. He could perhaps even promise some kind of action on settlements (most likely an agreement to dismantle settlement "outposts"). If Obama welcomes mere words, this will also mean repeating the failures of the past. A variety of Israeli governments have previously agreed to settlement freezes, explicitly including so-called "natural growth," and simply disregarded their obligation to implement them. They have agreed numerous times to dismantle their "outposts," which are the smaller symbolic settlements, only to allow or provide support for their immediate rebuilding. (In fact, all the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, not only the "outposts," are illegal under international law, including the huge city-settlements of Ma'ale Adumim, Ariel, and the vast East Jerusalem settlements disguised as "neighborhoods").

In any of these scenarios, Netanyahu might drop his ultra-nationalist rhetoric to endorse earlier Israeli "moderate" positions - none of which ever led towards ending the occupation. It's even possible that Netanyahu's extremist language was designed explicitly to be moderated as a "gift" to the U.S. president during just such a visit. But what if Obama falls for the trick, welcomes such inadequate promises with enthusiasm, calls them a great concession, thanks the Israeli leader profusely, and demands Palestinian concessions in return? If we go down this road, the Obama administration will have done nothing to hold Israel accountable to its promises, settlements will continue being built, and the Palestinians will once again be identified as the obstacle to peace.

Then there's Iran…

Netanyahu has continued to escalate his campaign rhetoric threatening military force against Iran, sometimes framing it as "what Israel will have to do if the U.S. does not prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon."  Despite the agreement of all U.S. intelligence agencies (under the Bush administration, made public in the National Intelligence Estimate of December 2007) that Iran does nothave a nuclear weapon, is not building a nuclear weapon, and may not even want a nuclear weapon, the claim that Iran somehow represents an "existential threat" to Israel continues. Netanyahu demands that the U.S. agree either to attack Iran if Obama's potential nuclear diplomacy doesn't work, or agree to support an Israeli attack on Iran.

There are reports in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz that Obama sent an urgent message to Netanyahu just days before his visit, demanding that "Israel not surprise the U.S. with an Israeli military operation against Iran." If true, that would be a good sign. But it also gives credence to reports that Obama is considering creating a regional anti-Iran alliance - an extraordinarily dangerous proposal that will certainly escalate regional tensions - and wants to link that idea to an Israeli settlement freeze. That is, Obama may try to persuade Netanyahu to agree to a settlement freeze (implemented or not) as a necessary requirement to getting the Arab states on board a U.S.-Israeli anti-Iran alliance.

U.S. backing for an Israeli military strike against Iran and creating a regional anti-Iran coalition would result in significant regional dangers, and won't lead to any possible progress in supporting regional stability or ending the Israeli occupation.

So what do we look out for?

At the recent AIPAC convention, Obama administration officials' and supporters' speeches put greater emphasis on Israeli actions than was ever true during the Bush years. Senator John Kerry called for a settlement freeze; Vice-President Biden called for Israel to "not build settlements, dismantle outposts and allow Palestinians access to freedom of movement." If Obama, meeting with Netanyahu, demands a real settlement freeze - meaning an end to construction, expansion and building in all settlements, not only outposts - it could signify a real change in U.S. policy towards Israel. But this demand will be effective only if it's backed up by specific enforcement mechanisms, like conditioning all (or even part) of the annual $3 billion in U.S. military aid to Israel until there is tangible, internationally confirmed action on the ground. That would certainly be a change we could believe in.

Obama's acceptance of mere words from Netanyahu, on the other hand, whether he "accepts" a settlement freeze or "agrees" to a new round of talks about talks with the Palestinians, and not imposing any conditions to make sure it happens, will indicate that so far, at least, U.S. support for Israeli occupation and apartheid remain intact.

And any "deal" that offers Israel any promise of U.S. support for or involvement in a military strike against Iran will undermine whatever small move towards justice might be possible from a settlement freeze or removal of roadblocks.

Lots to watch for. Stay tuned.

* My reference to a two-state solution in this context does not mean that I believe such an arrangement will ultimately be viable, sustainable, comprehensive or maybe even possible - let alone just. But active support for it is the basis for Obama's claim of a different U.S. policy towards Israel and the Palestinians - and it would certainly transform the political terrain.

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