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Obama's Israel Problem | The Nation

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Obama's Israel Problem

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One of the many platitudes ritually invoked at the annual AIPAC conference is the claim that US and Israeli strategic interests are indivisible. It was repeated again this year, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, even as the allies struggled to patch up a nasty rift arising from the Netanyahu government's announcement of new settlement construction during Vice President Biden's recent visit to Israel.

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But what if the claim isn't true? This year it was challenged from unusual quarters, when Gen. David Petraeus, Centcom commander, told the Senate that the Israel-Palestine conflict--and widespread anger in the Middle East over Washington's favoritism for Israel--is hampering regional partnerships and fueling recruitment by Islamist extremists. And while Biden delivered the usual boilerplate about standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Israel in his public remarks there, in private he was harsh; according to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he told Netanyahu, "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."

It's one thing for dissident professors or activists to challenge assumptions about US-Israel relations; it's quite another for the most senior--and most respected--military officials to do so. The fact is that the Israel-Palestine conflict has been stalled for so long in large part because Washington has been unwilling to exert serious pressure on Israel. While Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy and his Cairo speech last year were promising gestures, the administration was disastrously undermined in the fall when it climbed down from its insistence on a settlement freeze.

It's time for the administration to confront Netanyahu's intransigence directly. It can begin by reasserting longstanding principles of international law and US policy: the acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible, and thus all settlements, whether inhabited by Zionist extremists in Hebron or apolitical suburbanites in East Jerusalem, are illegal. The world community has long recognized that a reasonable two-state solution requires a division roughly along the 1967 lines--including in Jerusalem--with at most minor adjustments.

The closest the sides ever came to a solution was at the January 2001 Taba conference, which took place only because of pressure from President Clinton. The proposals discussed there remain the best chance for resolving the conflict, a prospect further enhanced at the regional level by the Arab League's Beirut Declaration, which offers full recognition of Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation and Palestinian independence.

The Obama administration should formally propose, and then vigorously push, its own peace plan along these lines. But simply proposing one will not be enough; stacks of such plans are gathering dust in archives around the world. Washington must also make clear that it will not tolerate stonewalling or evasion. The administration should encourage reconciliation within the fractured Palestinian movement--since only a unified leadership will have the popular support necessary to enforce an agreement--even as it warns Israel that continued settlement construction will seriously damage US-Israel relations. President Eisenhower was not afraid to threaten economic sanctions in the face of Israel's refusal to withdraw from the Sinai after the 1956 Suez war; nor was George H.W. Bush when Israel refused to halt settlement construction. President Obama must be prepared to do the same.

 

One of the many platitudes ritually invoked at the annual AIPAC conference is the claim that US and Israeli strategic interests are indivisible. It was repeated again this year, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among others, even as the allies struggled to patch up a nasty rift arising from the Netanyahu government's announcement of new settlement construction during Vice President Biden's recent visit to Israel.

But what if the claim isn't true? This year it was challenged from unusual quarters, when Gen. David Petraeus, Centcom commander, told the Senate that the Israel-Palestine conflict--and widespread anger in the Middle East over Washington's favoritism for Israel--is hampering regional partnerships and fueling recruitment by Islamist extremists. And while Biden delivered the usual boilerplate about standing "shoulder to shoulder" with Israel in his public remarks there, in private he was harsh; according to the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he told Netanyahu, "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."

It's one thing for dissident professors or activists to challenge assumptions about US-Israel relations; it's quite another for the most senior--and most respected--military officials to do so. The fact is that the Israel-Palestine conflict has been stalled for so long in large part because Washington has been unwilling to exert serious pressure on Israel. While Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy and his Cairo speech last year were promising gestures, the administration was disastrously undermined in the fall when it climbed down from its insistence on a settlement freeze.

It's time for the administration to confront Netanyahu's intransigence directly. It can begin by reasserting longstanding principles of international law and US policy: the acquisition of territory by war is inadmissible, and thus all settlements, whether inhabited by Zionist extremists in Hebron or apolitical suburbanites in East Jerusalem, are illegal. The world community has long recognized that a reasonable two-state solution requires a division roughly along the 1967 lines--including in Jerusalem--with at most minor adjustments.

The closest the sides ever came to a solution was at the January 2001 Taba conference, which took place only because of pressure from President Clinton. The proposals discussed there remain the best chance for resolving the conflict, a prospect further enhanced at the regional level by the Arab League's Beirut Declaration, which offers full recognition of Israel in exchange for an end to the occupation and Palestinian independence.

The Obama administration should formally propose, and then vigorously push, its own peace plan along these lines. But simply proposing one will not be enough; stacks of such plans are gathering dust in archives around the world. Washington must also make clear that it will not tolerate stonewalling or evasion. The administration should encourage reconciliation within the fractured Palestinian movement--since only a unified leadership will have the popular support necessary to enforce an agreement--even as it warns Israel that continued settlement construction will seriously damage US-Israel relations. President Eisenhower was not afraid to threaten economic sanctions in the face of Israel's refusal to withdraw from the Sinai after the 1956 Suez war; nor was George H.W. Bush when Israel refused to halt settlement construction. President Obama must be prepared to do the same.

 

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