March 15, 2010

US Demands Lag Behind Israel

“We seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” President Obama said over a year ago in his inaugural address. “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

He was talking to “the Muslim world,” but he should have included Israel as it too is judged by what it builds.

US envoy George Mitchell originally entered the West Bank under the notion of officially launching proxy negotiations. He left after the peace process pushed him backwards. When he returns again on Tuesday, and if he visits Ramallah, he’ll pass through a sealed West Bank border.

"Israel's ties with the United States” might not be at “their worst crisis since 1975,” artificial as America and Israel’s public feud appears, but the reality on the ground is truly ugly.

The White House is actually prolonging the firestorm by brushing off Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hoping to make up for the damage already caused by previous inaction. Netanyahu’s actions - a statement of regret and a committee to investigate the incident - were labeled a “good start,” but the White House wants more.

It must demonstrate its backbone - five days after the approval of 1,600 units in East Jerusalem.

Too bad the White House’s reported demands are nothing more than a few old bones. According to the Haaretz, Washington has given Jerusalem at least four conditions to meet:
1. Investigate the process that led to the announcement of the Ramat Shlomo construction plans in the middle of Biden's visit. The Americans seek an official response from Israel on whether this was a bureaucratic mistake or a deliberate act carried out for political reasons. Already on Saturday night, Netanyahu announced the convening of a committee to look into the issue.

2. Reverse the decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to approve construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo.

3. Make a substantial gesture toward the Palestinians enabling the renewal of peace talks. The Americans suggested that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners be released, that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from additional areas of the West Bank and transfer them to Palestinian control, that the siege of the Gaza Strip be eased and further roadblocks in the West Bank be removed.

4. Issue an official declaration that the talks with the Palestinians, even indirect talks, will deal with all the conflict's core issues - borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and settlements.
The first term is potentially destructive, not a remedy. Netanyahu’s committee is meant to hide settlement approvals, not stop them. Biden’s visit was both a mistake and a deliberate act of provocation. US officials know they’ve emboldened Israel because they’re correcting inaction with overreaction (from Israel’s perspective).

Netanyahu has already refused the second term, but if he did reverse the approval what meaning would that have? The White House couldn’t even issue its demands in public, and without a settlement freeze the green lights will keep flashing. America appears under the impression that the Palestinians will restart proxy talks if it can reverse one approval.

Maybe Mahmoud Abbas will, but he shouldn’t. Israel will only smell more blood and America will get off easy.

Biden would’ve immediately demanded the decision be reversed if the White House was serious about settlements, not five days later, and he wouldn’t leave until receiving a definitive yes or no. America should’ve demanded a halt to all settlement construction in the West Bank and Jerusalem while proxy talks are in session, or face the risk defense and economic penalties.

Making Israel reverse one settlement block is a get-out-of-jail-free card.

Term three is where the little meat lies. A gesture of goodwill would be wonderful. Easing medical, energy, and food supplies into Gaza would be the best possible gesture, being the most urgent. Or maybe Israel could lift its new blockade on the West Bank and allow Palestinians to enter the Temple Mount again. That would be nice too.

Given the past two weeks a peace gesture is unlikely in the offing, and how good is a forced gesture anyway? The act serves no purpose if Israel is forced.

The fourth term is more deception. Of course final status negotiations consist of “borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and settlements,” and the proxy talks were supposed to read the temperatures of every aspect. This demand is redundant.

What it should say, were America serious about a two-state solution, is that Jerusalem must be divided, for that is what the conflict ultimately boils down to. Israel believes a divided Jerusalem is absolutely unrealistic - mostly because of that belief. Thus the White House will never ask for what must occur in a two-state solution.

Off in that direction awaits a one-state solution, an independent Palestinian state or neither, meaning an indefinite cycle of status quo and war.

Not only is the US memo nearly a week late, the contents don’t appear capable of restoring the proxy talks. And Obama is still resorting to an impersonal touch. Most US official have been expended in dressing down Israel. Rahm Emanuel might have something to say, but Gibbs, Biden, Clinton, and Axelrod are off the board.

America’s demands would carry more power if Obama issued them himself, but that's part of the problem. Trying to outlast the crisis as long as possible, it’s as if he’s saving himself for the last resort. He’s in this position though because he failed to take the front lines, so why hasn’t he? The failure of Cairo might be haunting him.

It’s also apparent that the White House knows Obama lacks the credibility or respect to speak out against Israel, a root cause of why the peace process is on life support.

Yet when everything was said and done Clinton assured Israel that US ties were, "not at risk. I mean, our relationship is durable and strong." But until that relationship is reexamined America will always be lagging behind in the Middle East.

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