Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Attack Thy Friend

Once again the US administration and Israeli government are going head-to-head. Recently, while Vice President, Joe Biden, was visiting Israel, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced a building project of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem. Biden, followed by a number of administration officials quickly condemned the Israeli announcement as damaging for the recently renewed peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu supposedly was blindsided by the far-right religious parties in his coalition. While skeptics doubt whether Netanyahu was truly oblivious, Biden took steps to accept Netanyahu’s ignorance. However, the administration followed with an outpouring of criticism and demands on the Israelis; including, investigation into the timing of the announcement, commitment towards confidence building steps (such as the release of prisoners), and a promise to discussion “final status” issues.

While the timing of the announcement was unconstructive at best; the administration’s response is unhelpful. The Obama administration consistently insists on lambasting its top ally in the region, in a continuous pattern of attack-thy-friend. This not only damages the already fragile relationship with Israel, but incites the Palestinians to avoid the negotiating table.

The administration’s continual rebukes give enormous power to the right-wing members of the Israeli ruling coalition. Many of these parties do not want to see any sort of peace deal. By allowing their tactics to throw a wrench into the negotiations, the administration ennobles their strategy. Whether in concert with or against Netanyahu’s wishes, these tactics prevent the process from going forward. As Netanyahu becomes isolated from the US and the Israeli public correctly views the US administration as a less than amicable friend, the Israeli leadership is forced to the far-right. Obama’s pushback on Netanyahu’s prior settlement plans summarily exploded in his face, making the administration look weak and unfriendly to Israel. Their knee-jerk reaction to condemn Netanyahu this time around is only furthering the perception of American ineptitude.

Likewise, the administration’s admonishment of Israel only serves to push the Palestinians away from the table. The Palestinian leadership now has little incentive to negotiate.  Instead, it can sit on the sidelines and watch the Israeli-American slugfest. Already, the Palestinian Authority has claimed that this round of negotiations have failed. Rather than being forced by the US to hold indirect talks with the Israelis, the Palestinians have gained a new level of confidence that they do not need to pursue a path to peace. They will be able to step back to their continued path of low-level violence with impunity. This is particularly true given the lack of condemnation by the US administration of the recent naming of a Palestinian West Bank square in honor of a suicide bomber and terrorist who killed 38 people.
The administration’s rush to criticize Israel has only added fuel to the fire. While the Interior Ministry’s announcement was ill-timed and possibly meant to incite the process, it does not justify such a public outcry by the US. Instead, backdoor channels should have been used not only to defuse and minimize the announcement but to assure that such problems are swiftly dealt with. Instead, the public airing of dirty laundry only hastens the failure of an already tenuous peace process.


  1. Josh--

    Four quick thoughts:

    First, I thought the title of this post was ironic: one could easily say that Israel was attacking the U.S. in the timing of the settlement announcement, which is strange, since Israel clearly needs the United States more than the United States needs Israel. And, as I mentioned to you earlier, it was an especially disrespectful swipe at Biden, who has long been a dependable Israel ally in the U.S. Senate.

    Second, you make a solid point that U.S. criticism towards Israel only serves Netanyahu's interests and Likud's desires, a perspective I had not considered. I like to think of Obama as a pragmatist, but his Mideast-peace policies, it seems, are based more in idealistic desires than a full grasp of events on the ground.

    Third, yes, the Obama administration's admonishment of Israel does push the PA away from the bargaining table. On the other hand, are we to imagine circumstances in which the PA would be any more conciliatory, or where a different approach to Mideast peace would place the PA in firmer control of West Bank political factions? Probably not.

    Finally, you mention that the United States did not condemn the West Bank memorial, though I don't believe the United States condemned Israeli extremists who recently praised the awful legacy of Baruch Goldstein over Purim either. Just putting that out there ...


  2. Karl~

    Well you know I love irony. I think the title can be taken in a lot of ways. I do state that Shas's involvment certainly is to hinder the peace process.

    As to your third point, my impression is that the administration worked tirelessly to get Abbas to the table only to give him an easy-out on a minor sticking point. Maybe it is simply missing the forest for the trees type of issue, but I'm sure the administration had to sell Abbas on the failure to stop Israeli settlements in the last round and get him back to the table - all that work is unraveled in one moment.

    As to the last point, I'm not sure the specifics of this Israeli extremist issue, but it seems to me that praise by extremists is different than naming of a public space by the governmental power. One is isolated and by definition not inline with the government, the other is public and supported.


  3. Great article. Balanced and realistic.


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