Hillary in the Holy Land
Hillary Clinton's Middle East visit this week was hailed by many as the latest manifestation of America's new get-tough stance towards Israel. Still left in a starry-eyed daze by the effect of Obama's ascent to power, pundits took the view that the world would never again be the same since his victory, hence anything he or his entourage touched would turn inevitably and immediately to gold.
The Middle East peace process, long stalled (if not furiously backpedalling) under Bush's eight-year reign, was signalled by the Obama camp as a top priority, therefore all eyes were on Clinton's inaugural trip to the Holy Land in her role as secretary of state.
However, now that she's been and gone and the fanfares have died down somewhat, it is clear that – as far as the Israeli government are concerned – it's business as usual, regardless of who's calling the shots in the halls of US power. One example of the new reality mirroring the old was Clinton's feeble outburst against the demolition of Palestinian homes, in which she described the actions as simply "unhelpful", a charge which was immediately rejected out of hand by Jerusalem's mayor, who scoffed at her pronouncement with all the petulance of a child complaining that mum and dad "just don't get it".
"I totally reject the notion that we are kicking people out of their homes," he said, blaming the furore on a campaign of Palestinian "disinformation". According to Mayor Barkat, the Israeli officials were merely applying the letter of the law, in an entirely even-handed fashion: "If you build illegal houses you pay the consequence ... I expect people to obey the law."
Ergo, Clinton is wrong, the Palestinians are wrong, and every other critic of Israel's clearly discriminatory house-demolition policy is wrong as well. By Barkat's token, the full weight of Israeli law will come crashing down on anyone – Jew or Arab – building illegally; except, of course, when it's settlers laying the foundations for hilltop outposts, or even the government itself contravening domestic and international law with every new approval it gives for construction over the Green Line.
Clinton's toothless proclamations were not backed with any concrete sanctions to punish Israel's misdeeds, instead falling back on the standard American formula of expressing mild annoyance at the Israeli government in public, while privately soothing Israeli politicians, patting them on the head and sending them out to play with another year's pocket money to spend on arms, roadblocks and concrete slabs of separation wall.
Of course, if the US refuses to stand up to Israel's bullying behaviour in the Middle East playground, then Britain and other interested parties aren't likely to take firm action either. The much-trumpeted cancellation of the British Embassy's tenancy agreement in Africa-Israel's Tel Aviv skyscraper is the political equivalent of a parent not giving their child a third helping of dessert as punishment for stealing a classmate's bicycle. Africa-Israel's bottom line is hardly likely to be affected in overall terms by such a paltry measure, at least not while foreign governments refuse to come good on their promises to rein in Israel's settlement expansions and land grabs in the West Bank.
The chasm between political posturing and hard, meaningful measures gets wider as the years go by, since by doing nothing while Israel feverishly continues throwing up more and more obstacles in the path of the peace process, foreign governments are complicit in perpetuating the occupation. Thanks to its heavy reliance on overseas aid and trade agreements, Israel could not continue to flout international law in a vacuum – providing a golden opportunity for intervention on the part of America's Midas-man, should he be serious about following through on his promises.
However, rumours of the demise of the old American approach to Israel are somewhat premature, on the basis of the Obama team's first bland foray into Israeli affairs. If the new US regime does live up to its billing, it can only be good for the long-term security and prosperity of both Israelis and Palestinians, but those looking on shouldn't be holding their breath.
© 2009 Guardian News and Media Limited