• Obama
  • January 5, 2011
  • 7 minutes read

The U.S. needs to get tough with Israel

The U.S. needs to get tough with Israel

When diplomatic sources revealed that the United States was abandoning efforts for an Israeli settlement freeze, many surely did not know whether to laugh or cry. The first two years of U.S.-Israeli relations under the Obama administration has been a debacle. For the next two, what is learned from that failure, and how it’s applied, will be of utmost importance.

The failure to get a freeze is not only about the settlements – a colonial enterprise expanding on occupied Palestinian territory that a new Human Rights Watch report called a "two-tier system" that is both "separate and unequal"- but also a test of America’s commitment to evenhanded mediation. So-called core issues, including the return of Palestinian refugees and the disposition of Jerusalem, are every bit as difficult as the settlements, maybe more. But obtaining the freeze was a tone-setter, one that would have shown that the U.S. could fairly enforce obligations by both parties.

This didn’t happen. Instead, during the earlier, temporary 10-month freeze, the Israeli settlements were still being expanded – only new-home construction was frozen – and settlements around Jerusalem were accelerated.

When the Oslo peace process began – a process that was based on the principle of a two-state solution – there were 200,000 settlers in occupied Palestinian territory. Over the years, as Israel has claimed it sought peace, it increased the number of colonists to well over 500,000 today, according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

No legitimate Palestinian leader can negotiate with Israel while it continues to colonize Palestinian land.

The U.S. strategy began to fail when it expected the Israelis to freeze settlements upon request. What the Obama administration apparently didn’t realize was that Israel would not change its behavior without an incentive. When that finally became clear, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made an offer that amounted to a bribe.

Generally, the incentive to rectify bad behavior in the international community – behavior like expanding settlements despite road map obligations and international law – is delivered by sticks, not carrots. But the deal offered to Israel, which included billions of dollars’ worth of advanced F-35s in exchange for a 90-day freeze, was all carrot and no stick.

And it didn’t work. Despite American prostrations, the Israelis continued with settlement expansion, and provocative announcements about settlements around Jerusalem were made just as the offer was reported. All hope for a freeze disintegrated.

The message this sent to Palestinians was that the United States was simply incapable of being an evenhanded broker. The U.S. never misses an opportunity to reward bad Israeli behavior, and Israel never misses an opportunity to squeeze its principal world ally.

Ultimately, we discovered that Israel’s near-insatiable desire for American carrots is outweighed only by its insatiable desire to colonize Palestinian land.

Will Washington learn from this and apply the lessons in the next stage of mediating this conflict?

The Obama administration should not expect the Israelis to do anything without pressure, and this pressure – economic, diplomatic – has to be real, tangible and biting. A brazen Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, undoubtedly emboldened by what he and his right-wing coalition view as a victory in a standoff with President Obama, needs to be presented with a decisive and harsh response to Israel’s bad behavior.

Some suggest that abandoning a freeze gives the United States an opportunity to put forward its own plan. But if Washington couldn’t muster the strength or the will to press Netanyahu on settlements, can anyone believe it can press the Israelis to accept a deal on the rest of the core issues? It’s highly unlikely.

The biggest mistake the United States has made in the last two years was not its focus on settlements but its failure to use leverage to get the Israelis to stop building them.

Has Washington learned the lesson? Perhaps the answer came earlier this month when Clinton delivered a major policy speech at the Brookings Institution. Though she expressed her frustration with the peace process, she didn’t signal any change in the U.S. approach. Clinton’s message can be summed up succinctly: We will keep doing what we have done and hope for a better outcome.

At a moment when the world needed to hear a change in direction, we instead were told that the United States is committed to repeating the same failed policies of the past. This is precisely why Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil recently determined they wouldn’t wait for the bankrupt American-led process and recognized the state of Palestine.

America’s political response? Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) rushed a resolution to the House floor expressing opposition to such declarations of Palestinian statehood. The resolution, which passed, is a timely reminder of the increasing gap between Washington and the international community on this issue.

If there is no change in the U.S. approach to Israeli violations, no one will take this administration seriously: not the Israelis, certainly not the Palestinians, and presumably not the international community. Who can blame them?

* Yousef Munayyer is the Executive Director of the Jerusalem Fund and the Palestine Center.