US - Israeli Relations: No More Have One’s Cake and Eat it

US - Israeli Relations: No More Have One’s Cake and Eat it

Early days: Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama at a previous meeting in July 2008. Photo: Barack Obama's flickr site. This image is subject to a Creative Commons license.

May 22, 2009
By Akiva Eldar
Last week's meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demonstrated a fundamental disagreement between the United States and Israel. While Obama made it crystal clear that he is committed to a two-state solution as the only framework for solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, Netanyahu kept refusing to spell out that formula. This is not another political debate between friends, soon to fade away. Israel and its most important ally are facing a deep ideological and strategic conflict. This is a serious confrontation between two different schools of thoughts.

Two schools of thought

While Netanyahu believes that the West Bank (defined by him as "Judea and Samaria") and East Jerusalem are, and should always be, part of Israel, Obama sticks to the traditional American policy that defines those territories as "occupied". While Netanyahu argues that Jews should be allowed to live anywhere between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, Obama insists that Israel must halt all settlement activities behind the Green Line (i.e. the land occupied by Israel in June 1967).

While Netanyahu does not believe that handing over territories to the Palestinians will guarantee Israel’s peace and security, it appears that Obama does not even consider a different path to tranquillity in the Middle East. While Netanyahu argues that removing the Iranian nuclear and terrorist threat is the key to regional security, Obama insists that a regional peace, which will include Israel, all the Arab and most of the Muslim countries, will isolate Iran. This will increase the pressure on its regime to give up the nuclear project and stop arming terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who threaten to undermine any Arab-Israeli political process. The Obama administration also believes that a Pax Americana in the Middle East will pave the way home for American troops in Iraq - without abandoning Iraq to Iran and Global Jihad.

The special US-Israeli relationship

To what extent, if at all, will this wide difference of perception affect the current "special relationship" between Israel and the U.S.?

Before answering, one has to remember that every American president has opposed the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories, holding that to grab more Palestinian land would prejudge the territories’ final status and make it harder to draw a reasonable line between Israel and the future Palestinian entity. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have repeatedly stated that the United States seeks a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At the same time, five former Israeli Prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin (P.M. between 1992-1995), Shimon Peres (1995-1996), Ehud Barak (1999-2001), Ariel Sharon (2001-2006) and Ehud Olmert (2006-2009), held different views. They realised that keeping all the occupied territories, and their four million citizens, under Israeli control, jeopardises the country's Jewish identity and democratic values. Prime Minister Netanyahu (1996-1999) was the only one who refused to offer any piece of land to the Palestinians. Yet, due to great American pressure, he succumbed in two cases, that of the 1996 Hebron agreement and the 1998 Wye Agreement.

The so-called "peace process" between Israel and the PLO, that originated in Oslo 16 years ago and was launched in the White Hose, has failed to produce peace, security, and prosperity. Even more disappointing is the fact that successive Israeli governments kept turning a blind eye on the expansion of the settlements and even kept financing many of them. Thus, no American president has been able, willing, or both, to put meaningful pressure on Israel to stop the building of settlements, much less to dismantle them.

Different contexts for Bush Sr. and Obama

The last American President who challenged Israel and its lobby was Bush Senior. Back in 1992, his administration froze nearly $10 billion in loan guarantees, because Israel refused to halt the construction of settlements. The dispute helped undermine the hard-line Likud government of Yitzhak Shamir and bring Rabin to power. Bush insisted that expansion of settlements does not correspond with the peace process he had initiated at the Madrid Conference of October 1991. During his campaign for re-election, the conservative republican president stood up against the Jewish and the evangelical lobby, as well as both Democratic and Republican congressmen.

Unlike Bush Senior in late 1992, Obama has the blessing of the Democratic Congress and Senate - and he has more than three years before he has to start worrying about re-election. Also he does not need to be concerned about the Jewish organisations. The mainstream Jewish community, and even AIPAC, the conservative pro-Israeli lobby, is not challenging his campaign for the two-state solution. According to a poll solicited by J Street, a Jewish American organisation that promotes peace between Israel and the Arabs, an extraordinarily strong base of 69 percent of American Jews firmly supports active American engagement in bringing about peace in the Middle East, even if this means publicly disagreeing with, or exerting pressure on, both Arabs and Israelis; 70% support the U.S. working with a unified Hamas-Fatah Palestinian Authority government to achieve a peace agreement; and 76% of American Jews support or strongly support a two-state solution along the lines of the agreement almost reached in 2000-2001, during the Camp David and Taba talks.

It is too early to predict whether Obama will follow Bush Senior's policy and resort to sticks and carrots to force Netanyahu to engage in serious negotiations with the Palestinians – and, in the near future, with Syria, too. Thus far, the indications are not clear, yet Obama's rhetoric shows that he does not shy away from an open confrontation with Netanyahu. On the other hand, though, Obama was silent during the recent Gaza War, when Israel was being criticised around the world for its brutal assault on that densely populated enclave.

Who is “a friend of Israel”?

George W. Bush, who took a lot of credit for his support of a two-state solution, yet did very little to make it happen, was considered by the Israelis to be one of the American presidents most friendly to their cause. Why was an American leader who refused to invest his power and prestige in keeping the two-state solution alive, considered a "friend of Israel"? A poll published in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz a few days before Netanyahu's meeting with Obama indicated that almost 50% of Israelis would like him to reach an understanding with the president regarding the two states solution.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert kept warning that if the two-state solution collapses, Israel will face a struggle similar to the one experienced by South Africa. "Once that happens", Olmert warned in an interview to Ha'aretz, “the State of Israel is finished." At the same time, former President Jimmy Carter, who keeps warning Israel along the same lines, is considered by many Israelis and American Jews as the most anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic of all former U.S. presidents. So, who is a better friend of Israel - an American leader who keeps hugging his Israeli counterpart while turning a blind eye on the erosion of Israel's Jewish and democratic identity? Or a president who twists the arm of the Israeli Prime Minister and drags him to the negotiating table? Regardless of Israel's interests, if Obama truly believes that putting an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict is an American national interest, his duty is to use U.S. leverage on both sides, Israeli and Arab, to make the two-state solution a reality.

The special relationship between the U.S. and Israel has a complicated effect on Arab regimes. On the one hand, they have realised that in spite of their strategic and economic interests in the Arab world, the Americans will continue to guarantee Israel's security and well-being. The cases of Egypt and Jordan have shown their neighbours that in order to open doors in Washington they need to approach Jerusalem. On the other hand, the special relationship, and especially the use of Jewish pressure, has eroded the Arab's trust in the U.S.’s ability to serve as honest brokers in the conflict with Israel.

At times the special relationship has become a liability for Israel, too. For instance, during the 2006 Lebanon War the United States would have been a better friend had it pressured Israel to come up with a smarter response, or pressed for a quick ceasefire.

US credibility

Unlike Bush and even Clinton, Obama is enjoying the trust of the Arab world. His decision to first invite an Arab leader, King Abdullah of Jordan, to the White House rather than the Israeli Prime Minister, as did his predecessors, was a clear sign that he intends to be even-handed. This will give him more credibility should he put a peace plan on the table requiring some concessions from the Arabs, too. U.S. views on most of the core issues that dominate the Arab-Israeli agenda are much closer to the Arab position. As demonstrated by Clinton's plan in December 2001 and Bush's letter to Sharon in June 2004, the U.S. sees the June 4, 1967 status quo as the basis of a border between Israel and Palestine - with some room for an agreement on a fair land swap. The Americans have never accepted Israel's annexation of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights.

On the other hand, too many sticks, too few carrots, especially when it comes to security, may turn the Israeli public against Obama. In order to receive popular support from Israelis, he will have to insist on certain conditions. These include a right of Palestinian refugees to return only to the new Palestinian State; partial sovereignty for Israel in the old city of Jerusalem, especially as regards Jewish holy sites; demilitarisation of Palestine; and the deployment of international troops in Palestine for a certain period of time.
The only way Obama can make Israel accept the two-state solution along these lines is by presenting a package that contains these principles. Such a package must be wrapped in generous economic aid, but there will also have to be a clear price tag on the future of the "special relationship".

Unfortunately, the benefits of peace with the Arabs and the hardships of the occupation have not moved Israelis and Palestinian in the right direction. Once both sides realize that sticking to unrealistic positions threatens a substantial loss of American support, they might force their leaders to give peace, and Obama, a chance - or they will push them out of office and elect a different leadership. One way or the other, the option to have the cake and eat it has faded away. Sooner rather than later, Israelis will have to decide whether they prefer "business as usual" in the occupied territories, or "business as usual" in their special relationship with the United States.

Akiva Eldar


Akiva Eldar is a chief political columnist and editorial writer for the prestigious Israeli national daily Ha'aretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition, as well as in the Japanese daily Mainichi.

From 1993-1996 he was the Ha'aretz US Bureau Chief and Washington correspondent, covering the peace process, US-Israel relations, American issues, and Israel-Diaspora relations.

Together with Idith Zertal he is the author of the book Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007, which was supported by the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

In 2006 Akiva Eldar was selected as the most influential commentator in Israel by the Financial Times.
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