US-Israel relations: A looming crisis?

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The vibes from Washington, reconfirmed by President Obama’s speech in Cairo, suggest that the United States may be heading toward a major confrontation with Israel.

The policy adjustments are being orchestrated in a highly sophisticated manner. President Barack Obama conveys warm signals to the Jewish community, expressing appreciation for the Jewish contribution to American society, hosting the first Seder ever held in the White House and visiting Buchenwald rather than Jerusalem after Cairo. He reassures Americans that the United States will remain “a stalwart ally of Israel and it is in our interests to assure that Israel is safe and secure.”

Yet when President Obama reiterates the need to be “honest” with Israel there is no doubt that he is signalling his intention of adjusting long standing US policies.

What we are witnessing is not the anticipated confrontation over illegal outposts or restraining the growth of settlements. Nor is it a conflict over “two states for two peoples” which is a red herring inflicted upon Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu because of domestic considerations. President Obama is fully cognisant that when Netanyahu and his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman explicitly endorsed the Quartet Road Map, they were signalling that a Palestinian state is not an issue. It is the nature of such a state and issues relating to Israel’s long term security needs that they feel must first be resolved.

Recent White House body language suggests that the PA now enjoys a favoured relationship with the president. Obama, who does not relate to a need to be “honest” with Mahmoud Abbas, seems to be concentrating most of the pressure on Israel which is being subtly portrayed as an obstacle to progress.

The key policy change is the reversal of priorities governing the Road Map. From day one it has been clearly stipulated that prior to Israel making concessions, the Palestinians would be obliged to demonstrate a commitment to curbing terror and eschewing violence. Today that does not even remotely apply. Yet despite the lessons of the Gaza withdrawal, Israel is once more being pressured to provide unilateral concessions as a sign of good faith. The United States even announced that a PA-Hamas unity government would qualify as an appropriate peace partner.

In addition, two key understandings extended to Israel by the Bush administration are simply being disregarded. In a letter to former prime minister Ariel Sharon on April 14th 2002, President Bush stated that in accordance with UN Resolutions 242 and 338, any final settlement should take account of “the new realities on the ground” and should not oblige Israel to return to the 1949 armistice lines.

In recognition of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the Bush administration also endorsed settlement construction based on natural growth in the major settlement blocs.

President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton are now ignoring these understandings and demand that Jews henceforth be denied from taking up residence in regions, such as Ma’aleh Adumim and the Gush Etzion bloc, which will never be ceded to the Arabs. More unconscionably, the Obama administration is demanding that Jews be precluded from residing in sections of Jerusalem, the cradle of their religion and civilization. If implemented, Jerusalem would become the only city in the world not controlled by Islamic fundamentalists, where Jews are denied the right of residency. No Israeli government could conceivably accept such a demand.

The apparent dictats are even more outrageous when the US adamantly demands that the Netanyahu government adhere to commitments entered into by its predecessors. Yet Obama’s officials themselves display no inhibitions in repudiating understandings instituted by the Bush administration.

There are other issues. Obama has “suggested” to Mahmoud Abbas that he ends the incitement against Jews which saturates Palestinian Mosques, schools and the public arena. That is surely a mild rebuke for a criminal society which still brainwashes its citizens from kindergarten onwards to regard Jews as sub-human and extols those who murder Jews for achieving the highest level of martyrdom. Perhaps President Obama should “suggest” that Abbas personally cease sanctifying suicide bombers as national heroes and providing pensions to their families. He might also consider “suggesting” to Abbas that his determination to make areas under PA jurisdiction Judenrein is a form of ethnic cleansing frowned upon by the United States.

There are other ominous signals emanating from the US. Until now it was clearly understood that an Arab-Israeli settlement could ultimately only be resolved directly between both parties to the conflict. Now the Obama administration is moving towards an internationally imposed solution. There are repeated paeans of praise for the problematic Saudi ‘peace’ plan which, aside from the unacceptable demand to repatriate Arab refugees, also ignores the issue of defensible borders and would inflict upon Israel what the late Abba Eban described as “Auschwitz borders.”

There were also hints that if Israel failed to co-operate, the US may review employing its veto powers and influence at the UN and other international venues. Were that to happen, Israel would be thrown to the wolves and soon be confronted by sanctions and boycotts from international bodies dominated by Arabs and their fellow travellers.

Netanyahu is in an unenviable position. The cards are stacked heavily against him and rumours are circulating that elements within the Obama administration are determined to drive him out of office. He must be firm and resist the outrageous demands. Yet he must also make every effort to avert a breakdown in relations with our most important global ally.

Netanyahu must convince his party colleagues to extricate themselves from their self-imposed political swamp and end the spurious debate over Palestinian statehood. He should concentrate on the Road Map, insisting that a Palestinian state can neither be a Hamastan nor a threat to Israel’s security. Israelis must be assured that they will not wake up one day and discover Iranian troops massing on their borders.

Ironically today, as was the case previously in 2000 when Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offer of 97% of the West Bank , it is Palestinians rather than Israelis who oppose a state because they delude themselves that their dream of ending Jewish sovereignty is drawing closer as Israel becomes increasingly isolated. Abbas and his supporters are now openly saying that they intend to be passive and merely demand more concessions until Netanyahu is driven out of office.

It is time for all Zionist political parties to suspend their differences and unite in the face of a potential national crisis. It is time for Kadima head Tzipi Livni to rise above her personal political ambitions and act in the national interest instead of cynically blaming Netanyahu for the American pressure. She realizes that Kadima, no less than Likud, would be obliged to resist the draconian demands the US is seeking to impose on Israel. She should offer to join a unity government.

In the United States, public opinion and Congress remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel. A united Israel displaying moderation and rationally presenting its case can still galvanize the American Jewish community and neutralize those Jewish elements (including members of Obama’s entourage) who are undermining Israel.

A conflict is not inevitable. The policy changes at this stage are still embryonic and many appear to be trial balloons to test the water. Obama the pragmatist has on previous occasions shown that he can be persuaded to reverse polices. If he did so now, he would not merely avert a disaster for Israel but would also be acting in the global interests of the United States. There is no single instance in history where appeasement has succeeded in persuading tyrannies or rogue states to moderate their behaviour.

This column was originally published as a blog entry in the Jerusalem Post

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