Perhaps, Bibi’s insolence is a good thing. Perhaps, good old Benny [better known as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] has taken his utter disregard for courtesy and decency just one step too far. Even by official Israeli admission, it has been 35 years since Israel’s relations with the United States have been so sour.
It all started with a visit from the second most powerful man in the United States government, Mr. Joe Biden. The US Vice President is the highest ranking official to date from the Obama Administration to visit the region, ostensibly to nudge along the delicately fragile peace process that has only recently wobbled to its feet. Leave it to Israel to make it buckle at the knees, slapping its legs with a settlement stick so hard, the poor baby fell flat on its face.
One thousand six hundred homes to be exact is the number of settlement units it took for Israel to publicly embarrass Biden, strain relations with its staunchest ally and throw even the most optimistic of peaceniks into a downward spiral of skepticism over Israel’s true intentions towards the Palestinians.
The announcement that additional settlement homes would be built in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo [built largely on lands originally belonging to the Palestinian suburb of Shufat] came a day after VP Biden sang Israel’s praises, commending Netanyahu on "taking risks for peace." The warm and fuzzy feeling did not last long though, even for a man like Biden, who in a 2007 interview declared he was a Zionist. But even for a "Zionist", the settlement declaration was a bit too much. Why? Not because of the actual fact that settlements are being built illegally on Palestinian land every day, or even that they are being built with the US’s tacit consent. That has been going on for years. No, the impertinence came with the fact that settlement construction is the sore spot the US has been trying to smooth over ever since Barack Obama took the Oval Office. Not only did the announcement come mere days after the Palestinian leadership begrudgingly said it would approve a four-month window for proximity talks with Israel, but Netanyahu had to make it even worse by saying that the announcement was a simple faux pas and not an intentional political snub.
Of course, it was. Nothing is coincidental, especially in Israeli politics and especially when it comes to the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly claimed the announcement was not meant to embarrass Biden, but admitting that the timing was "unfortunate." However, not once did the Israeli premier say it should not have happened. On the contrary, he insisted that despite the diplomatic strain the announcement caused, the construction would not be halted. Not in Jerusalem, definitely, which Israel is adamant to proclaim as its eternal capital.
The souring relations between Israel and the US can only bring a smile to Palestinian faces, though. We have grown so accustomed to being at the wrong end of the stick where these two are concerned, always taking the heat, always being blamed for botching up this or that "opportunity for peace." Granted, it took the audacity of someone as rude as Benjamin Netanyahu to draw out this kind of criticism from the US but as long as the latter feels Israel has "insulted" them, we are making headway. "This was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region," said David Axelrod, one of US President Obama’s closest aides. In short, Israel pushed its friend a bit too far.
This is not very surprising given the nature of their relationship though. The US has been so appeasing to Israel’s behavior, has turned a blind eye countless times to Israel’s blatant violations of international resolutions and human rights law, that the latter has been led to believe it is not obliged to account for its actions. How else would you explain the US’s disregard for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, its unbalanced stance in international forums in favor of Israel and its flagrant double standards when it comes to Palestinian obligations towards making peace? Israel is right to believe that the US will not stand in its way because nothing over the years has proved this assumption wrong.
Maybe this recent incident will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Israel is clearly concerned with the tense relations with the US, especially since high ranking administration officials such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are making unusually stiff demands on Israel. Apparently, Clinton, who was extremely miffed by the settlement fiasco, has sent Israel a "to-do" list to try and reverse its bad behavior. Not only did the Secretary call on Israel to make a "substantial gesture" towards the Palestinians, she also said Israel should reverse the decision to approve the 1,600 Ramat Shlomo settlement homes.
These demands may seem miniscule in light of the billions of dollars in economic and military aid Israel receives each year from the Americans, but for this pair, it’s a big deal. For America, it’s a big deal because it’s not used to scolding and disciplining its baby and for Israel, it’s an even bigger deal because it’s certainly not used to being scolded and told what to do.
Finally, for the Palestinians, this could also be a potentially big deal. The Palestinians have done everything they possibly can to align themselves with international demands without compromising their basic rights and national aspirations. Going back to the negotiating table in the form of proximity talks took months of cajoling and a promise from the US that it would take a firm stance against any party that violates the spirit of these talks. Perhaps, this is America finally living up to its word.