Thursday, March 11, 2010

NewsFlash: Israel is not America's Bitch

On Vice President Biden's trip to Israel this week, coming on the heels of a widely heralded agreement by Israel and the Palestinians to resume indirect negotiations, with support from the Arab League, European Union and other less consequential actors, the US Administration received a rude awakening.

No sooner had Biden landed than information was leaked that some obscure tentacle of Israeli bureaucracy in charge of one aspect of a building permit process gave its approval to a building project in Jerusalem, planned many years prior, and with several years to go before construction actually begins. In other words, an announcement of no practical consequence, except to drive home to the Americans a simple message - we are not your bitch. Understandably, American bewilderment and fury ensued.

You see, it was a mere year ago, in the wake of Netanyahu's scraping together of a new government, that the Obama Administration, without holding consultations with the Israelis, out of self-indulgent hubris, barely concealed distaste for Israel's electoral right-wing turn, and pursuing a strategy of engaging the Muslim masses, stood before the world and demanded that Israel relinquish its claims to Shomron and Yehudah, and most egregiously, to Jerusalem. Just a year prior, at AIPAC's 2008 Policy Conference, Obama had pledged that "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." The sense of betrayal on Israeli streets was palpable.

At the time, stories surfaced of despair in Jerusalem, of Netanyahu feeling under siege, cursing Obama's Jewish Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, and sweating bullets over the pincer a popular American president had put him in. The Palestinians, who had been eager to continue negotiations where Olmert left off, found no reason to do so, seeing as the Americans were walking Israel down the concessions plank at gunpoint. The Europeans, themselves surprised by America's sudden turn of face, joined in the fray, linking EU-Israeli trade negotiations to the peace process and passing a resolution that all but recognized Palestinian sovereignty in all territories liberated by Israel in 1967, including a divided Jerusalem.

Instead of cowering to American and international pressure, unprecedented as it was, the Israelis spent the next six months helpfully wrestling Obama's man Mitchell to a standstill, agreeing in November to a temporary settlement freeze in Yesha, while formalizing unrestricted Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem. This point was recognized and understood by Mitchell: "The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in, or construction in East Jerusalem."

What a difference a year makes. Support for Israel in America has surged to near record heights, while Obama is tanking in the polls domestically, juggling massive deficits, double-digit unemployment, unpopular health care legislation, a looming Democratic slaughter come fall elections and the escalation of the Afghan war with no end in sight, all the while being manhandled by Tehran's mullahs and being shown the middle finger on Iranian sanctions by the combined forces of China and Russia. Who is sweating bullets now, Barry?

After first attempting to bring down Netanyahu's government, and failing at that, then wrangling from the Israelis a gesture meaningless to the Arabs, but one that begins the process of delegitimizing Jewish rights and property in Yesha, the Americans send in the proverbial clowns - Joe Biden et. al. - to consolidate their gains and prepare for another round of tough diplomacy, known in common parlance as "more Israeli concessions". Oh, and in case the Israelis were still thinking to stave off another holocaust at the hands of Iranian nukes through a preemptive strike, well, America won't allow that to happen, the preemptive strike, that is.

And so, from deep within the annals of Israeli bureaucracy - I wouldn't give Netanyahu credit for such a stroke of competence - a careful response emerged, one that pointedly leveraged sovereign Israeli rights in Jerusalem, not merely uncontested, but accepted by the Americans just months earlier, with the Administration's present weakness. Israel will continue build in its sovereign capital, per its legitimate rights and existing agreements. As if the point wasn't clear enough, it was clarified in a timely manner, by helpful, unnamed bureacrats:
Some 50,000 new housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line are in various stages of planning and approval, planning officials told Haaretz. They said Jerusalem's construction plans for the next few years, even decades, are expected to focus on East Jerusalem.
Any questions?

Crude, provocative, undiplomatic, but effective. The Israelis are approaching a pivotal moment, where, remarkably, they have regained leverage over all other parties. The Americans are weak, burdened at home, stretched abroad and, presumably, not looking for a major fight with a popular ally so close to elections. The Palestinians in Ramallah are content, having reached an agreement with Israel on containing Hamas, eliminating checkpoints and ensuring economic growth. The Arabs are nervous over Washington's inability to confront Iran, and are terrified that an outbreak of Palestinian violence will be popularly leveraged by Tehran and its regional proxies to further destabilize Sunni Arab regimes.

With a strong, growing economy, relative peace on its borders and neutered foreign pressure, it is Israel's turn to shine. How long the calm will last is anyone's guess. Used properly, the next six months will give Netanyahu the breathing space to formulate a coherent strategy for ending the conflict outside the traditional, dead-end scope of "two-states". At the very least, members within his center-right coalition must begin floating and debating, openly, concrete policy proposals. Anything less would be a tragic waste of a golden opportunity.

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