When he visited the Middle East, then Senator Barack Obama had a rude awakening. He was on the ritual visit for American presidential candidates to Israel, which usually consists of touring sites of significance to Jews and declaring support for the state of Israel. This is important for American politicians who pay homage to an influential pro-Israel lobby, and it was even more important for President Obama. His background, his middle name, his father’s religion and his associations with Arabs and Muslims made him a target of critics who claimed he would be soft on security.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) shakes hands with Israel’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak before boarding a helicopter at Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv March 11, 2010. Biden called on Thursday for no delay in resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, after Palestinians said Israel must cancel a settlement project before negotiations can begin. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Though it is doubtful that the unidentified heckler was Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Israeli prime minister, the same message was sent to the Obama administration this week from the Israeli government. After months of disagreement with the Israelis over their settlement policy, Vice President Joe Biden became the highest ranking Obama administration official to visit Israel and he was greeted by the announcement of 1,600 new settlement homes in occupied East Jerusalem.
Welcome to Israel, Joe.
Whether from hecklers or through government declarations the message from Israel to Washington is clear: we’ll take what we want and you cannot stop us.
The problem is the message from Washington to Israel has been far too ambiguous. The Israeli government, addicted to gobbling up Palestinian land, is taking every opportunity to exploit this ambiguity and embarrass American and Palestinian officials while they are at it.
Some argue that the Obama administration made a strategic mistake by raising expectations before guaranteeing full Israeli compliance with a settlement freeze. They are only partially right. The Obama administration was, in fact, right to raise expectations and capitalize on a wave of good faith resulting from a historic election welcomed around the world and in the Middle East in particular. The strategic mistake, and a big one at that, was the failure to apply the necessary pressure on Israel to force compliance with a full settlement freeze.
It has been said that to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results is insanity. Why then should the United States expect anything other than continued Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and in Jerusalem without applying the necessary sanctions to modify Israeli behavior? It is very clear, given the insulting announcement that the Israelis greeted Vice President Biden with, that asking them politely is simply not working.
For two decades of “peace process” the United States has failed to pressure Israel and, low and behold during this time period, settlements have only grown in size and population. In the last 20 years, the number of settlers on occupied Palestinian land has doubled and walls have been built around these Israeli colonies creating a near inextricable reality.
If this doesn’t change, nothing will stop Israel from completing its colonial project and the world will continue to live with an apartheid state in its midst.
The tools for change have always been in Washington but domestic politics have always made selecting to use these tools unpopular choices. The U.S. Congress is staunchly pro-Israel and looks at the Middle East blindly following the whims of influential pro-Israel lobbies.
Therefore, the Executive Branch will have to take unilateral steps to change the tone. The president has multiple tools at his disposal through the State Department, like the American vote in the Security Council, for example, which has been the single veto on nearly 40 occasions to save Israel from condemnation.
Binyamin Netanyahu is scheduled to be visiting DC at the end of this month; interestingly President Obama is conveniently scheduled to be traveling at the same time. Wouldn’t it be fitting for the White House to take a page from Israel’s book and announce a halt to U.S. support while the Israeli prime minister is in Washington?
Maybe, just maybe, if we communicated with the Israelis through a method they are familiar with they will finally get the message.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. This is Palestine Center Brief No. 193 (11 March 2010).