Israel’s Lawyer Can’t Stop Losing

In Jerusalem, President Obama renewed his call for a two-state solution. But his own missteps are partly to blame for its increasingly dismal prospects.


Barack Obama, Benjamin NetanyahuBy Jay Pinho

“It is not fair,” President Barack Obama declared tonight, “that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.” Obama was addressing Israelis at the Jerusalem Convention Center in his first visit to Israel as president of the United States. The trip was a highly publicized attempt to smooth over differences with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and curry favor with his new government and a skeptical Israeli public.

Indeed, Obama was right to decry the injustice of the occupation. But much of the blame for the perpetuation of what he termed the “grinding status quo” should rest squarely upon the president himself. Lacking from tonight’s speech was any semblance of a serious framework for peace talks, never mind for peace. A settlement freeze, once the centerpiece of Obama’s roadmap for peace negotiations, was never even timidly mentioned in passing.

Thus the cycle of endless backtracking is completed. Under Jimmy Carter, settlements were illegal. Under Ronald Reagan, they became an “obstacle to peace.” Now, as per Obama’s speech tonight, they are simply “counterproductive.” The progressively more muted rhetoric matches the devolution of the peace process from actual negotiation into something resembling kabuki theater.

And theater is precisely what it is: the continued half-hearted affirmations of the two-state solution by successive American presidents belie their rapidly vanishing interest in taking the steps necessary to achieve it. As Columbia University historian Rashid Khalidi deftly explains in his new book, Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East, the peace process is all process and no peace. “The policy of the United States toward the Palestine question,” Khalidi explains, “has actually functioned to exacerbate rather than resolve this problem.”

To understand how we have reached this impasse, one need only travel back in time four years, when Obama’s initial resolve on the settlements was met with steely opposition from Netanyahu, who perhaps more than any other Israeli leader in recent history perfectly represents the id of Likud extremism in its purest distillation.

In the face of this uncompromising radicalism – “The current Israeli government will not accept in any way the freezing of legal settlement activity in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank],” Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz said in May 2009 – the Obama administration backed down, and was consequently humiliated.

By March of the following year, Vice President Joe Biden would stand side by side with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and declare, “Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the United States and Israel.” The very next day, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 new illegal housing units in East Jerusalem. The message was clear: the tail wags the dog, not the other way around.

The story has been the same for decades. An American president stands up to its erstwhile client state, demands mild concessions, then promptly retreats in the face of a concerted outcry from Israeli hawks and their domestic American allies (most notably the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC). Obama’s key line tonight on Iranian nuclear aspirations – “This is not a danger that can be contained” – may as well have been written by Benjamin Netanyahu himself. And in all but the most literal sense, it was. The more the world fixates on the artificially elevated threat that an economically crippled Iran poses to its overwhelmingly more powerful rival, the less everyone will notice Israel’s creeping colonization of the West Bank.

Such is the “grinding status quo” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an exhausting marriage of lofty rhetoric and broken promises in which, as Aaron David Miller memorably described it, the United States has increasingly embraced its role as “Israel’s lawyer.” Khalidi quotes George Washington’s 1796 Farewell Address, in which he presciently warned the young nation against establishing unwise alliances: “Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.”

The United States has long found itself thus entangled with Israel. But while Obama has so far managed to stave off the neoconservative drumbeat of war against Iran, he has failed miserably to pressure the Israeli government to abandon its own war of attrition with the Palestinians, whose modest territorial integrity Israel has violated with nearly a half-century of forced land grabs. Today, with the ongoing settlements project rendering prospects for a two-state solution increasingly dim, the moment has come to tell Israel to find itself a different lawyer.

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Jay is a dual-degree master's candidate in international affairs at L'Institut D'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He blogs at The First Casualty and tweets as @jaypinho.

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