Tiff or Tipping Point?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in Jerusalem October 31, 2009.
(REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Pool/Files)

Tiff or Tipping Point?

"Condemn" is not a word that rolls trippingly off the tongue of a U.S.
politician addressing anything having to do with actions, however
objectionable, by Israel.

So it was no surprise that close observers of U.S. Middle East policy
sat up a lot straighter in their seats when Vice President Joseph Biden
used the word not once, but twice, during his visit to Israel this week
in reference to the Israeli Interior Ministry's announcement that it
intends to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

"I condemn the decision by the
government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East
Jerusalem," said Biden, considered among Israel's staunchest supporters
during his several decades in Congress.

"The substance and timing
of the announcement, particularly with the launching of (U.S.-mediated)
proximity talks (between Israel and the Palestine Authority), is
precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right
now...," noted Biden.

In a remarkable show of displeasure, he
subsequently kept Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu waiting 90 minutes
before joining him for an official dinner and, according to Israeli
press accounts, gave top Israeli officials a private tongue-lashing over
how such actions by the Jewish state incite Islamic extremism across
the Arab world and beyond.

Forty-eight hours later, Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, clearly rejecting Netanyahu's apology over the
unfortunate coincidence of the Ministry's announcement with Biden's
arrival, joined the fray.

According to her spokesman, P.J.
Crowley, Clinton called the right-wing leader Friday morning "to
re-iterate the United States' strong objections to Tuesday's
announcement, not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance."

secretary said she could not understand how this had happened,
particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to
Israel's security," Crowley told reporters. "And 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."

The rebukes, which some Mideast
veterans described as the harshest directed toward Israel by senior U.S.
officials since the presidency of George H.W. Bush almost 20 years ago,
have revived questions over whether the administration of President
Barack Obama is prepared to get tough with the most right-wing
government in Israel's history, particularly over the issue of

Early in its tenure, the administration demanded a
halt to all new Jewish settlement activity on Palestinian territory in
order to get serious peace talks with the PA underway.

demand, however, was rebuffed by Netanyahu, who, encouraged by the
right-wing leadership of the powerful "Israel Lobby" here, countered
with a partial 10-month settlement freeze that explicitly excluded East
Jerusalem whose "annexation" by Israel in 1967 has been rejected by all
other members of the United Nations, including the U.S.

administration's acquiescence in - indeed, praise for - Netanyahu's
"restraint" lost it a considerable amount of credibility, particularly
in the Arab world where hopes for a more even-handed U.S. approach to
the Israel-Palestinian conflict had been running high, especially since
Obama's speech in Cairo last June.

This week's contretemps with
Biden and now Clinton, however, has moved the settlement issue - and
particularly the fate of East Jerusalem, whose status as the capital of
any future Palestinian state is widely considered a pre-condition for
any viable two-state solution - front and center once again.

is now abundantly clear that with or without a formal declaration from
Netanyahu, getting events in Jerusalem under control - which includes a
de facto full-stop settlement freeze in Jerusalem - is no mere
discretionary gesture but a political imperative," according to Lara
Friedman and Daniel Seidemann of Americans for Peace Now (APN). "Failing
that, this political process will be stillborn."

But it is not
only the peace talks, which Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, had labored long and hard to convene, that this week's incident has put
into question. In the words of one veteran U.S. Mideast hand, Aaron
David Miller, it also raised new questions over "the degree to which
Israel is willing to take into account U.S. interests."

while Biden's mission was originally aimed at publicly reassuring
Israelis of Washington's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment" to
their security, as he put it immediately after his arrival, the private
message, especially in light of the Interior Ministry's announcement,
was that Israel should reciprocate, according to an account published in
Yedioth Ahronoth.

"'This is starting to get dangerous for us,'
Biden castigated his interlocutors," the newspaper reported. "'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.'"

"The vice president told his Israeli hosts that
since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between
Israel's actions and U.S. policy, any decision about construction that
undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on
the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic
terrorism," the paper continued.

Any assertion, particularly from
a recognized "friend of Israel" like Biden, that Israeli actions
against Palestinians have a negative impact on the U.S. position in the
larger region - let alone the safety of U.S. troops - has long been
anathema to Likudist neo-conservatives and the right-wing leadership of
the "Israel Lobby".

But, as Biden himself said in his departure
speech in Tel Aviv Friday, "quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a
friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Washington's harsh
condemnation of Israel's behavior comes just days before the lobby's
biggest event of the year here - next weekend's annual meeting of the
American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The meeting's organizers and Netanyahu, who will address the conference, had hoped to
focus on the necessity of confronting the "existential threat" posed by
Iran. But they may now find themselves in a more defensive position
regarding settlements, East Jerusalem, and Israel's alleged failure to
take account of the implications of its actions on U.S. interests.

Israel's actions had the virtue, according to former Israeli peace
negotiator Daniel Levy, of clarifying the strength of the settlement
movement in Israeli politics.

"The momentum they can now
generate ...is stronger than Israel's demographic concerns, is stronger
than fear of Israel acquiring an international pariah status, and as was
proven this week, is stronger than the needs of the U.S.-Israel
relationship," he wrote in 'The Guardian'. "America's vice-president has
just seen this dynamic first hand and up close."

That clarity
could spur Washington to take stronger action in concert with its
Quartet partners, which met in New York Friday and joined the U.S. in
condemning the latest settlement announcement.

"Perhaps America
will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for
recalcitrance," Levy wrote. "Thus far, that has not been the case." But,
"in the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to
dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of home for
pragmatic Zionism."

Miller is even more skeptical. While the
latest provocation "managed to elicit Washington's strongest words about
Israel in years," he wrote in 'Politico' Friday, "...for this very busy
president, the Arab-Israeli issue now has little to do with his stock
at home."

Still, Clinton's strong public backing for Biden and
her own dig at Netanyahu Friday hint of a tougher public stance. Another
hint could come next week when she keynotes the AIPAC conference.

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