A little counseling might help get the Israel-U.S. partnership back on track.
Every relationship can have its rocky patches. Plenty of marriages that have lasted as long as 60 years or so will have to make a few visits to the therapist’s couch to work things out.
The United States and Israel should be checking their appointment books to schedule an emergency session. Vice President Joe Biden’s state visit in March is only part of the story. He was there to demonstrate the Obama administration’s support for the state of Israel and to jump-start long-stalled peace talks.
But Biden’s visit disintegrated into a diplomatic divorce hearing when the Israeli housing ministry chose to announce a new plan for a 1,600-unit expansion in East Jerusalem soon after his plane touched down. That plan would continue the expulsion of Palestinians out of a section of Jerusalem they hope to one day use as the new capital of a Palestinian state. Clearly elements within Netanyahu’s coalition wanted to send a message to the Obama administration, and Obama’s team quickly replied in kind, denouncing the decision and demanding an official investigation of the snub and a dramatic gesture from Netanyahu aimed at getting the peace process moving again.
The problem is that the current Israeli government, comprised of some of the most radically Zionist political blocs in Israel, has little true interest in moving the peace process along. Many are openly hostile to the notion of a Palestinian state and are eager to continue the “security” annexations of what’s left of the West Bank. The intentions of Netanyahu’s cohorts are certainly clear to the Arab street, providing fodder for al-Qaeda’s recruitment campaigns.
That’s why in addition to openly condemning the housing expansion plans, Joe Biden told Netanyahu, according to one Israeli paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, that U.S. and Israeli strategic goals were heading for an unprecedented divergence.
“This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden allegedly told Netanyahu’s representatives. “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.” (Biden later denied using these exact words, but his muddled replay wasn’t much different.)
Biden’s warning follows an earlier indication of the degrading relationship betweenthe two countries. During a January 16 briefing at the Pentagon, a team of senior military officers sent by U.S. Central Command Chief Gen. David Petraeus met with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen to share Petraeus’ concern that the failure to make any progress between Israelis and Palestinians was threatening U.S. strategic interests.
During a March 16 appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus himself said: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors . . . foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. . . . Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas.” These moments offered a rare public view of discord between Israel and its patron.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. It’s not clear that President Obama is ready to consider more dramatic measures, such as aid suspension, to express his displeasure with Israel’s current leadership. Prime Minister Netanyahu, despite a few expressions of embarrassment over the timing, not the content, of the housing policy, doesn’t truly appear much concerned about the growing rift between the two strategic partners.
Indeed many within his government have been eager to loudly pronounce their indifference to U.S. pressure and their clear personal animus toward the U.S. president, a deeply unpopular figure in Israel. But the sudden uptick in tension does offer one new opportunity at least in what has become a completely moribund peace process: the permission to speak plainly and clearly about conflicting goals and strategies regarding the two-state solution and other components of a comprehensive regional peace. Sometimes clearing the air, though unpleasant, is the first step toward saving a struggling relationship. Now if we could just get some face time with Dr. Phil.