A more realistic era in US-Israeli relations

Drew Christiansen

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Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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For the first time since the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, U.S.-Israeli relations are undergoing a real earthquake. What started off as a lack of personal chemistry between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has evolved into a real diplomatic crisis between the two nations. Relations have entered uncharted waters and there is a growing sense in Washington that a significant and irreversible change of momentum has occurred.

A pair of elements coming together in the final stages of the March 2015 Israeli election campaign accounts for this relationship crisis. Fueled by the personal distaste that Obama and Netanyahu have for each other, these elements coalesced into a tipping point that was reached and passed.

The first element was Netanyahu's accepting an invitation by Republican House Speaker John Boehner to address a joint session of Congress, without alerting or consulting with the White House, as is normal diplomatic protocol. The White House considered this a snub to the president and a deliberate attempt to sabotage delicate U.S. negotiations with the Iranians over their nuclear program.

Reaction from both the White House and the Democratic Party was fast and furious. Neither the president nor any senior administration official met with Netanyahu during his visit, and dozens of Democratic lawmakers, including senior Jewish-American ones, boycotted the Netanyahu speech in Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi even left the House floor before Netanyahu did without greeting him, and later said she was brought to tears and insulted by Netanyahu's "condescension."

To add insult to injury, The Wall Street Journal reported that Israel had spied on the closed-door talks with Iran, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany, and had supplied classified information to congressmen and other officials opposed to the negotiations to use against the president.

Netanyahu's congressional blunder also has long-term ramifications. By inserting the issue of Israel into the bitter U.S. partisan divide, he has soured Israel's reputation among Democrats and endangered the bipartisan "special relationship" with the United States by identifying Israel too closely with the conservative wing of the Republican Party.

The second element of the crisis was comments that Netanyahu made in the 48 hours leading up to the Israeli March 17 election. After years of barely paying lip service to the major U.S. foreign policy objective of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu definitively rejected the U.S.-sponsored peace process and established U.S. policy by announcing that he would not allow a Palestinian state to be created if he were re-elected.

Secure after his election win, Netanyahu furiously attempted to backpedal from his statements on Palestinian statehood, but the Obama administration soundly rejected those efforts. Addressing the top left-leaning Jewish lobby group in Washington, J Street, Obama's chief of staff, Dennis McDonough, dismissed Netanyahu's backpedaling by saying, "After the election, the prime minister said that he had not changed his position, but for many in Israel and in the international community, such contradictory comments call into question his commitment to a two-state solution."

McDonough added, "The Palestinian people must have the right to live in and govern themselves in their own sovereign state," and he drew loud applause and cheers when he asserted that "Israel's 50-year occupation" over the Palestinians "must end."

The upside of this new and evolving landscape in U.S.-Israeli relations is that it presents an opportunity for advancing the cause of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement and Mideast stability.

Netanyahu's words and actions since the early 1990s have finally put into sharp focus the de facto reality in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, namely that the Israeli right wing has absolutely no intention of withdrawing from an inch of occupied Palestinian land, much less midwifing the birth of a Palestinian state.

The opportunity this presents is in an overdue fundamental realigning of U.S. Israel-Palestine policy with U.S. national interests and the international community.

It is important to stress here that this is not advocacy for a shift in policy away from Israel or a diminishing of the military and strategic U.S.-Israel alliance. Obama and administration officials have taken pains to clarify that the security and military aspects of the U.S.-Israeli relationship are rock solid. Israel remains and will continue to be a critical ally for the United States in the Middle East.

Rather, it is a shift away from the automatic knee-jerk support for right-wing Israeli government policies that have become increasingly damaging to the prospect of a two-state solution, to the image of the U.S. around the world, to U.S. national interests and to Israel itself.

In the diplomatic arena, Obama and senior administration officials have spoken of a "reassessment" of the U.S.-Israeli relationship. Obama reacted with skepticism to Netanyahu's attempt to backtrack his statements on Palestinian statehood and said he is evaluating policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in light of Netanyahu's comments.

What might a U.S. realignment of policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like in the near future?

Fundamentally, this would mean a U.S. stance on international resolutions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is more in line with the international community. Obama has already hinted at such, saying that the U.S. is weighing whether to back Palestinian efforts to seek U.N. recognition for an independent state.

France is already preparing a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would define the pre-1967 Green Line as a reference point for border talks, but would allow room for exchanges of territory, designate Jerusalem as capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state, and call for a fair solution for Palestinian refugees. France hopes that U.S. frustration with Netanyahu will mean support for its resolution or at least no U.S. veto of it.

In the past, the U.S. has run critical interference for Israel on such resolutions. Last November, the U.S. quietly quashed a Security Council draft resolution demanding an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank within three years.

The European Union is also weighing options to pressure Israel back to negotiations. These include warning Europeans and European companies from buying products from Israeli settlements it considers illegal, sending observers to monitor Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and publicizing EU reports on Israel-Palestine, such as one critical of Israeli restrictions on people's movements.

It has become manifestly obvious that that the knee-jerk support America has granted Israel has not turned out well for either nation. It has only enabled the most reactionary forces in Israeli politics and injected the issue of Israel into the bitter U.S partisan debate.

Whatever course of action the U.S. chooses, a new Israeli coalition government made up of Likud and an assortment of smaller parties even further to the right must result in a necessary readjustment of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That policy should be first and foremost consistent with the U.S. national interest and the objective of the establishment of a Palestinian state within the framework of a two-state solution.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is a distinguished professor at Georgetown University. Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

A version of this story appeared in the April 10-23, 2015 print issue under the headline: A more realistic era in US-Israeli relations.

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