The Bigger Picture
Published on April 8th 2010 in Metro Éireann By Charles Laffiteau
Spring may have officially arrived here in Ireland as well as back in the states but as far as America’s relationship with Israel is concerned, it appears that the cold winds of winter have just begun to blow in thanks to Israel’s decision to move ahead with the construction of a new 1,600 unit ultra-orthodox Jewish “settlement” in the Palestinian enclave of East Jerusalem.
The timing of Israel’s announcement could not have been any more embarrassing for the United States since it was made right in the middle of Vic President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, a trip that had been intended to try and mend relations with Israel that have been frayed almost from the moment President Obama took office more than a year ago. As such, the Obama administration rightly took the announcement as a slap in the face even though the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, claimed he didn’t know the announcement was coming.
Vice President Biden angrily denounced the decision while he was in Israel and the U.S. State Department quickly followed up with an unusually frank description of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s subsequent hour long phone conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister. During this call, which was described in decidedly un-diplomatic terms by the U.S. State Department, Secretary Clinton rebuked the Israeli Prime Minister for the decision to build more settlements in East Jerusalem saying it was a violation of an understanding the US had that Israel would not build any more settlements on disputed Palestinian territory for at least ten months.
Secretary Clinton then reportedly demanded that Israel take unspecified steps that would demonstrate it was seriously interested in trying to negotiate a Middle East peace agreement because “the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president's trip.”
The U.S. State Department noted that “The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel's security. She made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate, not just through words but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.’
Secretary Clinton had discussed her phone call with President Obama and the language she would use beforehand to ensure that it accurately reflected the President’s feelings. Vice President Biden then followed up Clinton’s phone call to the Prime Minister with a call of his own and Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was summoned to a meeting with Deputy Secretary of State James B. Steinberg in an effort to ensure that Israel’s leaders got a clear and unambiguous message that the United States was extremely displeased by Israel’s actions.
Relations between the United States and Israel are now at the lowest point that I can ever recall. At the very least, relations between these two long-time allies are as bad as they were twenty years ago when the first President Bush expressed his anger and frustration with Israel’s determination to build additional new Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. But even though other American Presidents have also expressed their displeasure with Israeli leaders for actions that the US believes are detrimental to settling Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians, no previous American President has ever followed up their angry words with actions.
So the question I am asking myself is; “Will President Obama become the first American President to demonstrate his displeasure with Israel through his actions and not just his words?” Although I have a very real sense that President Obama will actually take more concrete steps than any previous American President has to show Israel that he really does mean business, I must reluctantly admit that 60 years of American-Israeli history also tells me he probably won’t.
Ever since the end of the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, America has steadfastly stood by Israel and acted as a guarantor of Israel’s national security. On the diplomatic front the United States has repeatedly vetoed or blocked any UN Security Council resolutions that condemned Israeli military incursions into Lebanon and the Gaza Strip or Israel’s refusal to give up most of that territory that it captured and has occupied since the 1967 Six Day War as well as any resolutions calling for economic or military sanctions against Israel. As a result, the UN General Assembly has passed 5 separate resolutions saying that Israel’s strategic relationship with the United States encourages Israel to pursue aggressive and expansionist policies and practices.
But America’s long history of blanket (or maybe I should say ‘blank check’) diplomatic support of anything Israel chooses to do extends far beyond the halls of the United Nations. When Ireland first proposed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty back in 1961, Israel was already working on developing a nuclear weapon while the United States quietly looked the other way. Then in 1969, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Nixon that he suspected Israel of stealing at least some of its nuclear material from the US in1965.
Thus it came as no real surprise when Israel became not only the only American military ally but also the only developed country in the world that refused to sign it in 1970. Although Israel has never acknowledged this, the fact that it does possess nuclear weapons is one of the worst kept secrets on the world. However I should note that Israel has also reportedly pledged that if the United States will guarantee its security, it will never be the first country to use them. This explains why the US acted so quickly to resupply Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
But America’s moral and diplomatic support for Israel pales in comparison to America’s monetary support of Israel. I will discuss this aspect of American support as well as the steps I hope President Obama will take to address Israel’s continuing refusal to halt the building of new ‘Jewish’ settlements in next week’s column.