Time for New Pressures on Israel
Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Israel last week was a strategic disaster — a strategic disaster of Israel’s making. Biden arrived in Tel Aviv to affirm America’s commitment to the long-term security of Israel. At the moment of his arrival, the Israeli government announced an expansion of government-built housing for ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Israel has occupied this territory since the 1967 War, but the long-term governance of the area remains internationally disputed. It is territory where Palestinians have widely recognized claims, violated by forced Israeli settlement of Orthodox Jews.
The entire region is watching how the United States reacts to this recent Israeli settlement expansion. In response to pressures from Washington, the Israeli governmnet had instituted a temporary and partial freeze on new settlements in late 2009. That pledge now appears irrelevant. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims that he was not informed of this new settlement in advance of Biden’s visit, and that it came from more extreme elements of his governing coalition that control the Interior Ministry. That is also irrelevant for the regional strategic context.
Faced with a fragile political situation in Iraq after the recent elections there, a belligerent and nuclear-arming Iran, and continued insurgency in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the United States must build credibility in the Middle East as a fair broker between warring sectarian groups. President Obama is deploying force and capital primarily to build coalitions that can govern the region in a stable and productive way. This is the American approach to nation-building amidst a region of failed (and failing) states. Since his extraordinary speech in Cairo last year, Obama has worked to nurture effective American relationships with diverse players in the Middle East — including many Islamist groups in Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The Israeli settlement announcement during Biden’s trip undermines everything that the United States is trying to achieve. It contributes to a widely-held image of the United States as an unequivocal supporter of Israeli expansion. It belies pledges to even-handedness and compromise. It makes Obama’s promises in Cairo appear baseless and insincere. The United States has a huge credibility problem in the region and Israel has just deepened difficulties for the United States, just when Washington needs regional partners more than ever before. How can we convince countries to impose sanctions on the extremists in Iran under these circumstances? How can we procure assistance for nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan with Israel acting this way, in our name?
I strongly support the security of Israel, but I also strongly object to Israel undermining our security (and the security of the region) for its own domesitc purposes. That has to stop. The expansion of settlements in occupied areas has to stop.
The time has come for the United States to raise the costs of this dangerous and regionally destabilizing behavior by our friends in Israel. Serious alliances often involve friendly pressures that go hand-in-hand with continued basic support. While voicing a continued commitment to Israel, President Obama should issue a statement with two clear provisions:
1. The United States will not authorize any future increase in aid of any kind to Israel until it issues an iron-clad pledge not to expand settlements for the next 12 months. Without an Israeli pledge, Obama will veto aid legislation that includes an increase in funding from present levels.
2. The President should suspend all deliveries of military equipment and supplies to Israel for 6 months as a penalty for the recent affront to mutual security commitments in the region. Future Israeli settlement expansions should incur an extension of this suspension. American military supplies should not support or protect Israeli expansion.
These measures will elicit strong criticism from various supporters of Israel, but the President can enforce them at manageable political cost. The measures will show the world that the United States is serious about acting as a fair broker in the region, unwilling to accept unilateral trouble-making by anyone. The measures will also create incentives for Israelis to re-think their settlement policy in the context of broader regional security aims.
The United States will continue to support Israel, but Netanyahu and others must know that this support is not unconditional or unequivocal. Israel must come to respect how its interests, the interests of the region, and the interests of the United States require control of Israel’s own internal extremists. If Israel does not adjust, it will only contribute to its further isolation. The greatest threat to Israel’s future is, in fact, found at home among its militant expansionists.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.