Obama Sends a Warning to Israel–But With No "Or Else"

The message President Barack Obama delivered at his April 13 press conference was crystal clear: The White House no longer regards Israel as a vital strategic ally but as a hindrance to U.S. policy in the Middle East. Experts have argued for four decades that Washington’s unstinting support for Israel and its ongoing occupation of Palestine undermines U.S. relations with Arabs and Muslims worldwide, but it took the military to convince a sitting president that a change in policy was necessary.

National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones said in a speech last year that ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was essential to easing tensions in the region. Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, went further this March when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee that America’s perceived favoritism for Israel created a hostile environment in the region for U.S. troops and made it easier for al-Qaeda and other militant groups to mobilize support.

Petraeus’ implicit message, that American soldiers were imperiled by the U.S. alliance with Israel, was backed by Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, who oversees the training of Palestinian security forces in Jordan. Dayton said that in searching Iraqi army barracks after the 2003 U.S. invasion he found numerous copies of a drawing of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Surrounding the dome was a serpent labeled "Israel."

Obama in his press conference linked the stalled Middle East peace process to the safety of Americans, saying such conflicts "are costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure." It was an unmistakable warning to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel’s stalling tactics are detrimental to U.S. interests. But warnings are meaningless if they carry no penalty, and there is not likely to be one if Obama listens to the advice of his Middle East adviser, recent pro-Israel lobbyist Dennis Ross, and waits for Israel and the Palestinians to come to a mutual agreement.

The Israelis are in no hurry to do so, of course. Instead of introducing the confidence-building measures Obama has requested, such as easing travel restrictions and freeing more Palestinian prisoners, Israel has done its best to provoke Palestinian anger. All seven members of Netanyahu’s inner cabinet announced publicly in late March that there would be no restrictions on Jewish housing in any part of Jerusalem, and no further concessions to the Palestinians of any kind. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called concessions "pointless;" another senior cabinet member, Benny Begin, said concessions would only "bring about a hardening in the policy of the Arabs."

Disregarding such statements, Obama pressed both sides to begin "indirect" peace talks at which Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would talk to a mediator but not to each other. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who had insisted that Israel freeze settlement building in East Jerusalem before he would resume negotiations, agreed to take part in the talks after Netanyahu quietly assured Obama’s special Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell that such construction would halt. Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat, quickly came back with the opposite message, however. "There is no freeze," he declared during a visit to Washington on April 28. Barkat has the authority to approve building projects in Jerusalem without informing Netanyahu.

Seldom mentioned in the controversy is that such projects are a clear violation of international law. Jerusalem had the status of an international city when Israel captured and annexed it in 1967. The Israelis then extended the city’s boundaries to take in a stretch of the West Bank containing several Palestinians villages. The U.N. and most of the world today regard these annexations as illegal. Israel has nevertheless proceeded to destroy Palestinian homes in Jerusalem to make way for Jews and, thanks to Washington’s use of the veto, has avoided U.N. sanctions.

How long Netanyahu’s promised halt will last is anyone’s guess. Despite his announcement last November of a 10-month freeze in the West Bank, more construction is underway today than a year ago, much of it financed by American contributors. Housing starts in the last three months of 2009 were up by almost a third over the same period in 2008. Israel also has violated its pledge to dismantle the "unauthorized" settlements that began as ramshackle trailers set up on private Palestinian land and today are thriving settlements with electricity, water, and paved roads supplied by the Housing Ministry.

Such settlements are likely to remain. With ultra-religious Israeli nationalists getting a disproportionate share of government spending on education, more and more Israeli youths are being indoctrinated early, and are pledging at their induction into the army not to take part in any evacuation of settlers from the West Bank. Many of the 18-year-olds are graduates of religious prep schools where they learn the West Bank is sacred Jewish land.

Israel ratcheted up tensions even further on April 13, when it imposed a new rule that could result in the expulsion of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank. The measure that went into effect on April 13 extends a 1969 military order aimed at "infiltrators" from Arab countries to now include anyone without an Israel residence permit. A person "without the right paperwork," according a military spokesman, can be deported without a hearing, or subject to a seven-year prison term.

The chief victims are likely to be law-abiding families in which one spouse is from Gaza, or from abroad, and the other from the West Bank. Such couples may no longer live together, which means that wives and husbands must separate, and parents must often leave their children. Since neither the permit nor the requirements for obtaining one were specified, the Israelis can also use the order to get rid of anyone they don’t like, including international peace activists, foreigners considered critical of Israel, and Palestinian advocates of nonviolent resistance.

The latter already are treated as criminals. On March 28, after Palm Sunday Mass at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, a group of Israelis, Palestinians and international peace activists marched peacefully to an Israeli checkpoint to protest restrictions on Palestinians’ right to worship in Jerusalem. On the way they were attacked by Israeli police, and 15 were arrested, including Ahmad Al Azzeh and Marwan Farjah, who are leading advocates of nonviolence. On April 24, marchers celebrating the fifth anniversary of protests at the Bi’lin wall were met as they approached the wall by Israeli soldiers firing tear gas, sound grenades and smoke bombs. Many of the participants were seriously wounded, including Emad Rezqa, who suffered a fractured skull. Many more were arrested.

Israelis who speak out against crimes against the Palestinians are vilified, and routinely called "traitors." A bill currently before the Knesset that has a strong chance of passing would outlaw any Israeli organization that provides information abroad against government officials or military officers accused of war crimes. Ten Israeli human rights groups said the bill would "reduce [democracy] to ashes." Anat Kamm, a young journalist who gave to Haaretz documentary accounts of illegal killings by the army that she had obtained during her miltary service, currently is awaiting trial on charges of "aggravated espionage."

Justice Richard Goldstone, who oversaw a U.N. report detailing war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas in Gaza last year, is widely condemned by right-wing Israelis as "a traitor" and was temporarily barred from attending his grandson’s Bar Mitzvah in South Africa.

While Hamas has carefully avoided actions that would provoke Israeli retaliation, Gazans who protest peacefully against Israel’s rule against farming within several hundred yards of the border are routinely fired on if they come too close. Several demonstrators were seriously wounded in April, and two were killed. Five more Palestinians died on April 28 while trying to smuggle desperately needed fuel into Gaza through a tunnel from Egypt. When Egypt blew up an adjoining tunnel the flames spread and ignited the fuel.

A Timely Accusation

In suggesting that continuing support for Israel has a detrimental effect on U.S. security interests, Obama and Petraeus were mainly referring to Israel’s long-standing occupation. A day after Obama delivered this message, however, Israel laid another land mine under the administration’s Middle East policy by charging that Syria was providing Hezbollah with Scud missiles that could reach Tel Aviv.

The accusation came just as the Senate is preparing to vote on the confirmation of Robert Ford, the career diplomat whom Obama has nominated to be the first U.S. ambassador to Syria in five years. Syria and Lebanon denied that Scud missiles had been sent to Hezbollah, and U.S. officials have found no evidence that they were. The resumption of diplomatic relations with Damascus is high on Obama’s agenda, but Israel’s latest accusation may give the Israel lobby enough ammunition to scuttle Ford’s nomination and see to it that Syria remains isolated.

In keeping the threat of a potential attack on Israel alive, Netanyahu continues to follow the playbook provided him by Richard Perle and Douglas Feith in 1996 at the start of his first term as prime minister. The two pro-Israel hawks who advised President George W. Bush to invade Iraq had five years earlier urged Netanyahu to put peace with the Palestinians on the back burner, and aim instead at establishing a Hashemite regime in Iraq and "seiz[ing] the strategic initiative along [Israel’s] northern borders by engaging Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran."

There is no evidence that the Iranians are developing a nuclear weapon or intend to, but the repeated assertion that Iran poses an "existential threat" to Israel serves to rally support inside Israel for the Netanyahu government and enable pro-Israel zealots in the U.S. to divert attention from Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. The emphasis on Iran as a nuclear threat also prevents Obama from mending U.S. relations with Arab nations urging that the Middle East become a nuclear-free zone.

Israel’s image as a small nation surrounded by enemies, diligently promoted by its supporters, forces Washington into the role of hypocrite as it turns a blind eye to Israel’s nuclear arsenal. Obama has made strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty a key principle of his nuclear strategy, but Egypt and other Arab nations refuse to support stricter inspections until Israel signs the treaty. "To be able to deal with the Iranian issue, you have to deal with the nuclear capabilities of Israel," pointed out Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Maged A. Abdulaziz. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a prominent figure at the conference of 189 nations held in New York in May to discuss reducing nuclear arms. The Israelis were notably absent.

A recent BBC poll showed Israel to be among the least favored nations in the world, along with Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan. The results reflect the stark truth that others are aware of but Americans are led to ignore: that Israel is depriving three million Palestinians of their most basic rights and has created in Gaza a giant prison in which everyone down to the smallest infant is made to suffer.

An editorial in Haaretz following Obama’s April 13 press conference referred to the fact that U.S. friendship and support "are vital to [Israel’s] existence." If so, then Obama has the means to effect a change in Israel’s policy, including a cut-off of U.S. aid, an end to tax exemption for contributions to settlement construction, and an end to use of the veto at the U.N. Security Council to protect Israel from the imposition of international sanctions.

The testimony provided by his generals has provided Obama with the incentive to end an unhealthy relationship that has allowed Israel to damage American interests with impunity. Moderate Israelis and Palestinians, along with most of the world, have long supported a Middle East peace agreement that provides for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with control over its own borders and a capital in East Jerusalem. Obama has the power to impose such a solution and end a conflict that could have ended years ago–”if he would only use it.