Opinion: Lines in the sand matter in the Middle East


BOSTON — President Obama is once again eye-ball-to-eye-ball with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Obama lost the last one when he called for a complete settlement freeze soon after he was elected. Netanyahu ignored him, and there were no consequences. At least, not for Netanyahu’s government.

There were consequences in the Arab world where expectations had been raised by Obama’s  historic speech last June in Cairo, which seemed to offer a new relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s back-down made it much more difficult to get the kind of support he needs against extremism, against Iran, and for an Arab-Israeli peace.

There were consequences in the United States, for it is beginning to dawn on strategic planners that the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is directly detrimental to  American security. No less a figure than Gen. David Petraeus, the most respected military man in America, weighed in on the issue before the Senate Armed Services Committee saying: “The (Arab-Israeli) conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism towards Israel.”

Petraeus, who has two wars to manage in predominantly Muslim countries, has to take into account that Israel’s continuing occupation is the number one poster child for recruiting  extremists.

And when a top American general says things like that, you know there are consequences for Israel too — consequences to which Netanyahu seems blind. Despite America’s declarations of undying support for Israel, the blank checks are being more carefully scrutinized. Israel cannot take the U.S. completely for granted as before.

That does not mean that U.S. support for Israel’s ultimate security is in danger. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been very adamant on that point. But it does mean that there is more debate today on how much the United States has to tailor its foreign policy to mesh with Israel’s. It does mean that the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the primary pro-Israel lobbying group, is being challenged by American Jews and non-Jews more than in the past. Testimony to this is the advent of the more liberal J Street, (www.jstreet.org) a recently formed Jewish lobby with an active website which proclaims itself “pro-peace.”

The tensions between the U.S. and Israel flared earlier this month after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem was greeted by an Israeli government announcement of a plan to build an additional 1,600 housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. This came despite the Obama administration’s insistence on a freeze of such construction to help in efforts to rekindle peace talks.

Netanyahu apologized for the "timing" of the announcement, but has so far refused to back down on plans to build the units. The Obama administration has made it clear it wants the order to build rescinded. And that right now is the line in the sand between Netanyahu and his cabinet and Obama and his administration. For now, Netanyahu blames his cabinet.
And it seems Netanyahu is consistently unable to keep his coalition partners in check. He gave the foreign ministry to the virulently anti-Arab Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party, only to have it publicly insult the ambassador from Israel’s important regional ally, Turkey.

Later, the foreign ministry insulted the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, William Delahunt, and four other visiting members of the U.S. Congress, by refusing to see them because their visit was sponsored by J Street. Since Israel’s lobbying support traditionally comes through the U.S. Congress, this seemed inexplicitly short sighted.

Netanyahu gave the Interior Ministry to the Orthodox Shas Party, which announced the now-famous East Jerusalem housing decision just as Biden flew in to get Palestinain-Israeli talks going.

But Netanyahu cannot duck the responsibility for these acts, which may stem from Obama’s original climb down, which  the Israeli prime minister may have taken to mean  that Obama  was weak and could be defied with impunity.

Of course one could say that Obama should never have ordered a settlement freeze, but once having made it,  backing down damaged his foreign policy.

One could also say, and many Israelis do, that ultimately their own security rests on a settlement with the Palestinians.

As Britain and France found out, the cost of colonialism can become politically and strategically too high to maintain. Yet both Britain and France held on to their colonies longer than self interest would demand, and the power of the Jewish settler movement in Israel is considerable – just as was the French settler movement in Algeria.        

Netanyahu is more of a political opportunist than a Greater-Israel ideologue. But his power rests with the Israeli right, which is not yet prepared to preside over the dissolution of Israeli colonies captured in the 1967 war — even though many, perhaps most, Israelis know it has got to come.

Efforts are being made to calm down the Israeli-American confrontation. AIPAC is about to have its annual meeting, at which both Netanyahu and Clinton are scheduled to speak . The pro-Israel lobby is weighting in with a flood of opinion pieces aimed at publication in American newspapers. And a push to encourage more than a couple of dozen Congressmen to urge Obama to back down again. But Obama cannot afford to lose this one.

Yes, it would be good if tensions between Washington and Jerusalem can begin to ease, but not at the cost of  an Obama foreign policy defeat, especially  in such an important arena as the Middle East. The irony is that a Netanyahu victory in this encounter will not help Israel either, not in the long run.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.