The Latest Israeli Settlement Flap
The Netanyahou government is at it again, this time in a more spectacular display of ham-handedness and arrogance than usual. The subject of this most recent excursion in “Don’t-give-a-damn-what-the-world-thinks-land,” of course, surrounds the Israeli government sticking a thumb in Vice President Joe Biden’s eye during last week’s visit to Tel Aviv by announcing its intention to build over 1,000 more Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem. They timed the announcement of this direct violation of their own policy (last November’s moratorium on new construction) to coincide with Biden’s arrival: “Welcome to Israel, Joe!” Biden was offended and said so publicly; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton got on the phone and reamed out Bibi in private, then announced she had done so (wouldn’t you love a transcript of that conversation?). The rest of us ignored the whole thing–shame on us!
Let’s review the sequence of events here. The center of attention, of course, is Israel’s continued colonization of the West Bank–in contravention of international law and the policies of most of the countries of the world. Bowing to international (and especially American) pressure, Netanyahou announced a moratorium on new construction on the West Bank in November 2009. This pronouncement was either extremely well “weasel worded” to include a very narrow interpretation of what “new” construction is, or Netanyahou and Company simply lied, because construction has continued since, as reported mostly by Israeli sources like Haaretz.com. Nonetheless, at least the fiction of suspension of more settlements has existed since.
This all changed, dramatically, last week, when the Israelis announced at least 1,200 new units (presumably condos or apartments) would be built in East Jerusalem, which is, of course, claimed by the Palestinians as their capital. The announcement was accompanied by film footage suggesting the construction was already underway. This occurs as Joe Biden is figuratively getting off the plane for a long-scheduled visit. The Israelis cannot argue that he was a surprise guest! In response, Biden scolds the Israelis, and Hillary calls and bitches.
This weekend, in an act of crocodile contrition, Bibi says he was sorry, that the timing of the announcement was not supposed to coincide with the American vice president’s arrival. The announcement DOES NOT suggest a reversal of the policy; the new settlements will continue. Bibi simply did not mean his slight to be quite so obvious: the Israeli leader apparently intended to stab the Obama administration in the back, not to poke it in the eye with a stick. Admirable!
Why is this such a big deal (or is it)? There are two reasons, both related to the major underlying difference between Israel and the United States over a peace settlement in the area. The Obama administration–including the president, vice president and secretary of state–have been staunch and vocal advocates of the two-state solution (where the West Bank becomes the independent Palestinian state),and their special representative, George Mitchell, has been plowing the ground for a year to promote that policy. The absolute key to the viability of this option is the cessation and rolling back (preferably disappearance) of Israeli settlements on the West Bank that now clutter what is supposed to Palestine. East Jerusalem is part of this equation, but exactly how it is disposed of is at least the subject of negotiation.
Netanyahou and his allies and coalition partners do not, in fact, favor the two-state solution for reasons that will be examined in the next posting. They will not, and cannot, publicly renounce the option because it would be a public repudiation of the U.S. regime. Given how many friends Israel has in the world, antagonizing Uncle Sam is an idea the inadvisibility of which is so obvious even Netanyahou cannot get it wrong.
But he tries! Like many of the extreme Zionists and settlers who surround him, Bibi firmly believes in a Greater Israel that includes the West Bank and that was willed to them by God himself. Whatever one thinks of the metaphysical bases of his position, it certainly gets in the way of–virtually precludes–any movement toward the Obama position. Thus, the two bases of disagreement: the question of settlements and the different view of peace.
Beyond the tactical slap in the face that this most recent flap creates is a deeper, more immutable problem that the incident highlights. That problem is the fate of a negotiated peace in the region. Many Israelis want peace badly enough to make concessions and to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, but enough do not to have allowed the formation of what can only be characterized as an anti-peace government led by Netanyahou. The Israelis at least have a spirited and open debate on this matter, and they are divided about as evenly as Americans are on a variety of issues.
Where there is not a healthy debate on this subject is in the United States. A Middle Eastern peace is very much in the American interest; it is, indeed, the only way to reconcile the two absolutely contradictory threads of American policy in the region: support for Israel and dependence on Middle Eastern oil. The two-state solution is the most promising/least unpromising approach to that solution, and it is the victim of continued Israeli settlements. Stripped away to its essentials, that is what the entire episode is about.
Supporters of Netanyahou in the United States (whom I have elsewhere referred to as “American Likud”) will disagree with this depiction and may even (I’m not sure how) find a way to defend the ham-handedness/arrogance of the pronouncement or to accept Netanyahou’s crocodile contrition about the timing. What I cannot understand, however, is the stubborn insistence on following a policy path that insures Israel will lose in the long run, which is where the current policy is surely headed. More on that in the next posting.