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A Strained Alliance By: P. David Hornik
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, June 08, 2009

Many words have been spilled on the Obama administration’s attitude and approach to Israel—conjectures, fears, and hopes. Now that it has been in office for over four months, certain principles seem to be clearly emerging.


First, the administration has been more critical of Israel than almost any other country. 

In his Cairo speech on Thursday, Obama said, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements [untrue] and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.” Comparatively, he said the “Palestinians must abandon violence.”

And to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, after his meeting with him in Washington on May 28, Obama said, “I also mentioned to President Abbas in a frank exchange that it was very important to continue to make progress in reducing the incitement and anti-Israel sentiments that are sometimes expressed in schools and mosques and in the public square.”


Neither statement has anything like the immediacy of “It is time for these settlements to stop.” Nor are the Palestinians, on these issues of murderous violence and incitement to murderous violence by their central institutions, being subjected to anything remotely approaching the pressure being exerted on Israel on the settlements issue.


In the Cairo speech Obama also referred to such problematic behaviors in the Arab and Muslim world as Holocaust denial, “violent extremism,” Darfur genocide, religious intolerance, and deficits of democracy, literacy, development, and women’s rights—but without assigning to a single one of these the gravity of the Israeli-settlements issue. He said, for instance, that “when innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience”—not that “it is time for it to stop.” As for Iran’s rapid progress toward nukes, Obama didn’t seem to say it should stop at all, mustering only the assertion that “any nation—including Iran—should have the right to access peaceful nuclear power if it complies with its responsibilities under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.” Compared to all these matters, the Israeli-Palestinian issue took about 25 percent of the speech.


The Obama administration also seems to believe that previous U.S. commitments to Israel mean nothing. Both Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said that Israel has to “stop” the settlements to the point of ending “natural growth.” The 2004 letter by then-President George Bush to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, largely on the strength of which Israel went ahead with its total pullback from Gaza and northern Samaria and destruction of all settlements there, states: “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949….”


Elliot Abrams, deputy national security adviser for the Middle East in the Bush administration, confirmed in April that this statement “largely resolved the issue of the major settlement blocs.” Bush’s letter was, indeed, overwhelming ratified in the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9) on June 23-24, 2004. And as Abrams added:


For the past five years, Israel’s government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians. (Emphasis added.)


Yet, on Friday, Clinton said regarding settlement growth: “There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States government.”


The clear implication for Israel: neither a written, public commitment by a U.S. president nor operative understandings with a U.S. administration mean anything; they can all be canceled by fiat at the whim of a new administration. The logical conclusion for Israel: why take any U.S. undertaking seriously, and why take any further “risks for peace” that would be underwritten by the U.S.?


As this background suggests, the administration appears willing to discount Israeli positions. In Cairo, Obama once more reiterated that he would “personally pursue” the creation of a Palestinian state. It has been a major leitmotif of his administration. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, for his part, while stating his desire for a peace agreement that would entail an end of Israeli rule over the Palestinians, has not used the word “state” in that context once.


The reason is that Netanyahu believes a second state between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, exercising full sovereign powers, would mortally threaten Israel. That is known to be his position, and is partly why he emerged as prime minister from the February 2009 Israeli elections. To Obama, it means no more than Netanyahu’s, or his government’s, or the majority of Israelis,’ stance on settlements. Obama indicates that that he will determine how Israel disposes of territory it conquered in 1967 – not Netanyahu or Israeli voters. Whether intentional or not, this message suggests a contempt for Israel’s political consensus.


Bush, a supporter of a Palestinian state, was in office during the tenures of two Israeli prime ministers, Sharon and Ehud Olmert, who also supported it (though Olmert much more fervently and explicitly than Sharon). For Obama, the Israeli political change in February 2009 has zero significance.


If the administration is cynical about Israel’s views, it takes a more hopeful view of Palestinian terrorists. In the administration’s eyes, genocidal jihadists who attack Israel are capable of self-reform and are potentially willing to seek peace and compromise. “Hamas,” Obama said in Cairo, “does have support among some Palestinians, but they also have to recognize they have responsibilities. To play a role in fulfilling Palestinian aspirations, to unify the Palestinian people, Hamas must put an end to violence, recognize past agreements, recognize Israel’s right to exist.”


As for Al Qaeda, Obama said they “chose to ruthlessly murder [nearly 3,000] people [on 9/11], claimed credit for the attack, and even now state their determination to kill on a massive scale.” He didn’t suggest that Al Qaeda is in any way redeemable. Accepting that Hamas is to Israel exactly as Al Qaeda is to America is beyond his ken; it would mean Israel, too, has implacable enemies and no choice but to fight them.


Yet Israel’s existential concerns have not received a fair hearing from the administration. Apart from the potential existential danger of the “two-state solution,” Israel faces actual existential danger from Iran’s imminent nuclearization. And while there are varied positions in Israel on the former issue, on the latter there is consensus.


But the Obama administration has made its views known on the existential threat that Israel perceives from Iran. Vice President Joe Biden said Israel “would be ill-advised” to do anything about it. National Security Adviser James Jones said Israel could “diminish that existential threat by working hard towards achieving a two-state solution”—seeming to imply that Israel had created the threat in the first place. CIA chief Leon Panetta was sent to Israel to warn it against a strike on Iran—not long before Obama announced his leisurely timeline of talking with the mullahs till the end of 2009, by which time Israeli intelligence says Iran will already have nuclear-weapons capacity.


Nor can Israel take much comfort in Clinton saying on Sunday that “I don’t think there is any doubt in anyone’s mind that were Israel to suffer a nuclear attack by Iran, there would be retaliation.” Israel wouldn’t have wanted it to get to that point at all.


And that is how things look in early June 2009. Perhaps the best that may be said for current U.S. policy toward Israel is that at this stage it is still early enough to hope that the Obama administration’s approach will improve.

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva. He blogs at http://pdavidhornik.typepad.com/. He can be reached at pdavidh2001@yahoo.com.

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