Yet again the flashpoint is East Jerusalem, seized by Israel in the 1967 war – this time, a proposed 1,600-apartment complex in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. And yet again the aftermath has led to the death of Palestinians by Israeli gunfire.
On March 9, the Israeli interior ministry announced the new project during U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s visit to Israel. President Obama had called for curbing settlement expansion in occupied territory.
Reaction was immediate and intense. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly apologized for the announcement’s “regrettable” timing but insisted that Israel could build freely in East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the territories it intends to annex.
Biden had a private, angry exchange with Netanyahu, invoking U.S. military concern about the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to the Israeli press.
“What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. “That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
On March 16, Gen. David H. Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command, voiced those concerns to the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.”
A week later, Netanyahu and Obama met at the White House for talks later characterized as “contentious.”
Netanyahu maintains a hard line on the settlements. And he makes no show of recognizing the viability of a Palestinian state. This intransigence reflects badly on U.S. credibility.
A similar, settlement-related contretemps flared up 20 years ago, leading President George H.W. Bush to impose limited sanctions on Israel in reaction to the brazen, insulting behavior of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who was quickly replaced. The question remains whether the Obama administration is willing to take even the mild measures invoked by Bush senior.
The situation is now more serious. Within Israel, ultra-nationalist and religious sectors have risen with a narrow, parochial perspective. And U.S. forces are engaged in unpopular wars in the region.
Last May, in Washington, Obama met with Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority. The meetings, and Obama’s speech in Cairo in June, have been interpreted as a turning point in U.S. Middle East policy.
A closer look, however, suggests reservations.
The U.S.-Israel interactions – with Abbas on the sidelines – hinged on two phrases: “Palestinian state” and “natural growth of settlements.” Let’s consider each in turn.
Obama has indeed pronounced the words “Palestinian state,” echoing President George W. Bush. By contrast, the (unrevised) 1999 platform of Israel’s governing party, Netanyahu’s Likud, “flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River.”
It is also useful to recall that Netanyahu’s 1996 government was the first in Israel to use the phrase “Palestinian state.” The government agreed that Palestinians can call whatever fragments of Palestine are left to them “a state” if they like – or they can call them “fried chicken.”
Last May, Washington’s position was presented most forcefully in U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much-quoted statement rejecting “natural growth exceptions” to the official U.S. policy opposing new settlements.
Netanyahu and virtually the whole Israeli political spectrum insist on permitting such “natural growth,” complaining that the U.S. is backing down from Bush’s authorization of such expansion within his “vision” of a Palestinian state.
The Obama-Clinton formulation is not new. It repeats the wording of Bush’s Road Map to a Palestinian State, which stipulates that in Phase I, Israel “freezes all settlement activity consistent with the (former U.S. Sen. George J.) Mitchell report, including natural growth of settlement.”
In Cairo, Obama kept to his familiar “blank-slate” style – with little substance but presented in a personable manner that allows listeners to write on the slate what they want to hear.
Obama echoed Bush’s “vision” of a Palestinian state, without spelling out what he meant.
Obama said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.” The operative words are “legitimacy” and “continued.”
By omission, Obama indicated that he accepts Bush’s “vision”: The vast existing Israeli settlement and infrastructure projects on the West Bank are implicitly “legitimate,” thus ensuring that the phrase “Palestinian state,” referring to the scattered remnants in between, means “fried chicken.”
Last November, Netanyahu declared a 10-month suspension of new construction, with many exemptions, and entirely excluding Greater Jerusalem, where expropriation in Arab areas and construction for Jewish settlers, as at the Rabat Shlomo project, continues at a rapid pace.
These projects are doubly illegal: Like all settlements, they violate international law – and in Jerusalem, specific Security Council resolutions.
In Jerusalem at the time, Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu’s “unprecedented” concessions on (illegal) construction, eliciting anger and ridicule in much of the world.
The Obama administration advocates a “reconceptualization” of the Middle East conflict, articulated most clearly last March by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair John Kerry.
Israel is to be integrated among the “moderate” Arab states that are U.S. allies, confronting Iran and providing for U.S. domination of the vital energy-producing regions. Within that framework some unspecified Israel-Palestine settlement will find its place.
Meanwhile the bonds deepen between the U.S. and Israel. Close intelligence cooperation goes back over half a century.
U.S.-Israeli high tech partnerships are flourishing. Intel, for example, is adding a gigantic installation to its Kiryat Gat facility to implement a revolutionary reduction in size of chips.
Ties between U.S. and Israeli military industry remain particularly close, so much so that Israel has been shifting development and manufacturing facilities to the U.S., where access to U.S. military aid and markets is easier. Israel is also considering transfer of production of armored vehicles to the U.S., over the objections of thousands of Israel workers who will lose their jobs.
The relations also benefit U.S. military producers – doubly so, in fact, because supplies of U.S. government-funded weapons to Israel, which are themselves very profitable, also function as “teasers” that induce the rich Arab dictatorships (“moderates”) to purchase great amounts of less sophisticated military equipment.
Israel also continues to provide the U.S. with a strategically located military base for pre-positioning weapons and other functions – most recently in January, when the U.S. army moved to “double the value of emergency military equipment it stockpiles on Israeli soil,” raising the level to $800 million.
“Missiles, armored vehicles, aerial ammunition and artillery ordnance are already stockpiled in the country,” Defense News reports.
These are among the unparalleled services that Israel has been providing for U.S. militarism and global dominance, as well as for the U.S. high-tech economy.
They afford Israel a certain leeway to defy Washington’s orders – though Israel is taking a big risk if it tries to push its luck, as history has repeatedly shown. The Ramat Shlomo arrogance clearly hit a nerve.
Israel can go only as far as the U.S. permits. The U.S. has long been a direct participant even in Israeli crimes it formally condemns – but with a wink. It remains to be seen whether the charade will continue.
Adapted from Hopes and Prospects, published by Haymarket Books, March 2010.