Brief moment of truth in US-Israeli relations passes as row abates


AMERICA: The crisis over housing in east Jerusalem has shown the desperate need for consistency in US Middle East policy

THERE IS one fact so obvious in the spat between Israel and the US over housing in east Jerusalem that no one here has bothered to state it: Israeli settlements on Palestinian land are illegal under international law.

They are illegal under article 49 of the fourth Geneva Convention, which states: “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” They are illegal under UN Security Council resolution 446, and were ruled illegal in an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in 2004.

In a way, it’s surprising this dispute took place. After all, Israel has continued colonising east Jerusalem and the West Bank, day after day, year after year, nearly quadrupling the number of settlers to 500,000, since the “peace process” started with the failed Oslo accords in 1993. When prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a bogus 10-month “freeze” on West Bank settlements last November, secretary of state Hillary Clinton praised it as “unprecedented”, although the “freeze” did not slow construction and excluded Jerusalem.

Why then the expressions of shock and outrage when the Israeli housing ministry announced on March 9th, the day vice-president Joe Biden arrived in Israel, that another 1,600 units would be built in east Jerusalem?

David Axelrod, president Obama’s senior adviser, called it “an affront” and “an insult”. (Netanyahu last summer called Axelrod and Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel “self-hating Jews”, according to the New York Times.) Administration sources say they had a private understanding with Netanyahu that although the “freeze” excluded Jerusalem, there would be no provocative moves in the city that two peoples claim as their capital. And because Obama already backed down once on settlements, the Israelis probably thought he’d back down again.

More than anything else, the crisis has shown the desperate need for consistency and an overarching strategy in Obama’s Middle East policy. One effect of the row has been to revive suggestions that the president should present his own peace plan.

Netanyahu’s office dissociated itself from a remark by Hagai Ben Artzi, the brother of the prime minister’s wife Sara, on army radio on Wednesday. “There is an anti-Semitic president in the US,” Ben Artzi reportedly said.

Yesterday’s Jerusalem Post published an opinion piece on “Obama’s war on Israel”, which condemned the US leader for “treating Israel like an enemy”, for his “onslaught on Israel’s right to Jerusalem” and his administration’s attempts to convince Netanyahu to “relinquish Israel’s right to independently strike Iran’s nuclear installations.”

The same Mrs Clinton who last November praised the “freeze” came down like a hundredweight of bricks on Netanyahu in a 45-minute phone conversation on March 12th. The secretary of state demanded Netanyahu reverse the housing plan, make positive overtures to the Palestinians and agree to discuss Jerusalem’s status in “proximity talks”, the Washington Post reported.

Netanyahu responded on Thursday night with a proposed list of “confidence-building measures” to be adopted by Israelis and Palestinians. The state department yesterday said it was reviewing the proposals. Clinton will meet Netanyahu here on Monday, when both of them are scheduled to address the annual conference of the American Israel public affairs committee (AIPAC); the group claims nearly half of Congress attends its get-together.

In the meantime, US officials and commentators have criticised Israel in an unprecedented fashion. Gen David Petraeus, the commander of the US military’s central command, signed off on a report that said Israeli intransigence put the lives of US forces in the Middle East in danger. “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favouritism towards Israel,” Petraeus told the Senate armed services committee.

Joe Klein of Timemagazine wrote: “It would be nice if groups like AIPAC lobbied Israel to be a more thoughtful ally and stop expanding its settlements, especially given the American blood that has been shed in the region.” Maureen Dowd, the inimitable New York Times columnist, praised the White House because it “has not yet retreated into its usual compromising crouch”.

But the White House’s defiance of Israel has created a backlash. Eric Cantor, the highest-ranking Jewish member of Congress, telephoned Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, to tell him to “pull back and lower the volume”.

Another Jewish Congressman, Anthony Weiner, condemned the White House “temper tantrum”, saying “Israel is a sovereign nation and an ally, not a punching bag. Enough already”.

Ten days into the row, there are signs it is abating, with US officials making more and more statements about America’s “absolute commitment to Israel’s security” and their “close unshakeable bond” (Clinton on Wednesday).

The brief moment of truth will have passed. It will be back to business as usual. The useless “quartet” will keep making statements that Israel ignores, Hamas will fire rockets and Israel will bomb the Gaza Strip, as happened over the past two days.