Tuesday, July 21, 2009

U.S.-Israel Relations, The Rather Limited Limits of Confrontation

By Barry Rubin

I’m going to make a bold assertion: I think the U.S.-Israel friction over construction on settlements is largely over, not in terms of verbal criticism but rather in any meaningful way. This doesn’t mean the United States is going to stop talking about settlement construction. That’s the whole point: it will keep talking without taking strong action in real terms.

It was reported recently that the State Department called in new Israel ambassador Michael Oren and gave him a talking-to regarding a construction project in Jerusalem. This was widely perceived as some new example of confrontation. In my view, it proved the opposite.

In fact, it was Israel, not the United States, which made the meeting public. If the United States wanted to escalate pressure on Israel it would have given the criticism a lot of publicity.

But what about this one? A State Department spokesman responded to a question at a press briefing asking whether the U.S. government was considering putting financial pressure on Israel to get it to stop construction, he responded, "It's premature to talk about that." This was not a major new U.S. threat, it was simply an official without guidance on what to say, simply answering: No one is talking about that now.

Then he added, "What we're trying to do...right now is to create an environment which makes it conducive for talks to go forward." But obviously U.S. sanctions on Israel would sabotage any such climate.

What we are actually seeing is the pretense of pressure without its actual application. There are several reasons for this:

--This administration doesn’t really want a confrontation with anyone. It is averse to applying real pressure. Rather, it measures success on the basis of partnership, cooperation, and popularity.

--President Barack Obama learned during and after the presidential campaign that bashing Israel carries with it a high cost both politically and in terms of negative publicity and criticism.

--Knowing that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to resist pressure, it assesses a confrontation will be both costly and unlikely to yield success. In her major foreign policy speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even acknowledged that it would be hard for Netanyahu to make concessions given his own political situation.

--The administration has gotten nothing from the Palestinians. On the contrary, their leaders have made it clear they will make no concession and are not eager for change. They merely are waiting for the United States to deliver Israel to them, which is something the administration understands isn’t going to happen.

--The Arab states, in what must have been another shock for the administration, are giving no help either. All Obama got was a couple of nice speeches from Jordan’s king, some nice media coverage in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and an op-ed by Bahrain’s crown prince. It must be dawning on Obama’s administration that it is the only one eager for progress in negotiations and cannot expect any help from the region.

--When politicians and policymakers see what they thought was an easy success turn into a messy mess, they lose interest and turn to other issues.

--It is becoming clear that Iran is not interested in engagement either. The administration is becoming focused on the sanctions’ issue. Major G8 and G20 meetings in August and September will focus on the Iran nuclear issue.

Aside from this, the administration clearly has nobody who understands anything about Israel. I don’t say that lightly but it is confirmed by sources within that government. The presence of Jews in the administration doesn’t solve that problem.

On the contrary, such people tend to exaggerate their own very limited knowledge. They tend to disregard what Israelis actually think and say believing that they themselves know better what’s good for the country. Yet while they are willing--even eager--to engage in criticism--they are not so eager to punish Israel in damaging ways.

The latest U.S. move was an example of such a miscalculation. To pick an incredibly small housing projects—about 20 apartments—in an area which is at the top of the Israeli list for border modifications (French Hill in Jerusalem), and even to focus on Jerusalem itself is to choose the worst possible case.

On this specific project, the Netanyahu government is guaranteed maximum public support in Israel. Even in the U.S. Congress this is not going to inspire support for the White House. And all these factors, of course, played into the Israeli government’s willingness to go public.

Finally, while the administration spun its meeting with selected Jewish leaders as signaling American Jewish support for the policy on settlement construction, there is a gigantic flaw in this claim. First there was far more criticism than the media and the anti-Israel lobby pretending to be pro-Israel (Peace Now and J Street) asserted. At most, asked if they object to Obama’s opposing settlement construction, the real Jewish leaders there basically said, “It can’t hurt to ask.”

But what If Obama asked them: Do you favor my punishing Israel for not giving in to my demand? Of course, they would respond: Absolutely not. For all practical purposes, then, the meeting was useless for Obama in actual policy terms.

My view is that the administration will keep making speeches and statements in meetings against settlement construction but not do anything vigorous. It feels that such a posture is needed to show the Arabs and Muslims that it is working on the issue and moving further away from Israel but knows that this is an image question. Tough action will gain it nothing and lose it a lot.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the United States reduced aid to Israel by some figure which supposedly coincided with money spent on settlement construction.

Would this make Israel amenable to making more concessions at U.S. request?

Would it increase Israeli respect for future U.S. pledges when this president has broken past ones? (I know enough people who were involved on both sides of past negotiations to know for certain that Obama is indeed breaking past commitments to accept construction within existing settlements.)

Would Congress meekly fall into line and carry out Obama's demands, especially as his popularity rating continues to sink over other issues?

But Obama himself stated in his meeting with Jewish leaders--along with some of his planted, anti-Israel Jewish activists--that he attributed the previous administration's "failure" on the issue partly to its very close proximity to Israel. He wants to open up some space between the two countries. But how much space? The gap doesn't have to be very wide.

The above is an analysis, not a defense, of the Obama administration's policy. In turn, the policy is one based on misunderstandings and miscalculation, but not on some visceral hatred of Israel.

In some ways, the Obama administration's view is a return to the approach of several Cold War presidents whose thought the United States needed to prove it wasn't too "pro-Israel" in order to get Arabs on board for the conflict with the Soviet Union. Now, to some extent, the new motivation for this balancing act is the idea that Arab support is needed against terrorism, radicalism, and Iran.

I can still state that after six months in office the administration has not taken a single material action against Israel. We’ll see if that changes at all in the months to come.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition) and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. To see his blog, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com

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