Pundit Class Won’t Shut Up about U.S.-Israel Row

While there has been precious little official action in the recent diplomatic row between Israel and the U.S. — a few lines of a speech here, a few public statements there, and reported details of some behind-closed-door meetings and phone calls — the media and the pundit class have been going positively bananas (me included), producing thousands of pages of articles, op-eds, blogs and press releases.

On the progressive side — those of us seeking some change, any change from the way things are now — you have characters like myself, Jim, and Phil Weiss writing about how public and political discourse in the U.S. may indeed be opening up.

Among the status quo lobby (SQL) — those who enable the Israeli right, shielding it from criticism on things as uncontroversially counterproductive as the settlement enterprise — we have a different side to the story. Their meme is that this is a diplomatic row either “orchestrated” or “escalated” by the U.S. administration. This goes beyond “Israel right or wrong,” and pushes into territory that merely shouts, with jingoistic fervor, that “Israel is always right.”

This tack is one that — surprise, surprise — seems to have its roots in Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s office:

Sources in the Prime Minister’s Office said the crisis appeared to be orchestrated by the U.S. administration, as Netanyahu apologized to U.S. Vice President Biden and believed that the crisis was behind the two allies.

This belies the fact that this row was started by an announcement of new settlement construction. The timing — smack during a visit from Vice President Joe Biden — catalyzed it, and that’s what Netanyahu apologized for. But underlying that has been a full year of stubborn refusal on the part of the Israeli government to accede to international law and, yes, U.S. demands with regard to settlements. President Barack Obama and his team did not issue permits; they did not take over land, kicking out its residents; they did not offer incentives for new immigrants to move there; and they did not build housing units. These are all actions by Israel, for Israel, and of Israel.

With Bibi’s meme laid out, the SQL went right to work. AIPAC put out a release on Sunday (PDF) putting the responsibility for cleaning up Israel’s mess squarely on Obama’s shoulders. My LobeLog colleague Marsha Cohen picks apart the AIPAC release, drawing on news reports and articles from Israel.

Eli also hits on AIPAC and The Israel Project’s talking points, and Victor Davis Hanson‘s descent into madness. VDH has been pushed a little closer to the edge, no doubt, by these latest events — he admonishes Obama for failing to “defend Israel.” VDH should consult more closely with his ideological brethren — this comment, taken in toto with other neoconservative critiques, makes it seem like the Obama administration is supposed to defend Israel from attacks by the Obama administration.

John Podhoretz, writing in the Jewish neoconservative magazine he edits, Commentary, said it was the U.S. administration that “escalated” the diplomatic crisis — Israel’s role, once again, was simply bad timing. Writes Podhoretz (emphasis mine):

Let’s start out by acknowledging that what happened during Vice President Biden’s trip last week — the announcement of new housing starts in East Jerusalem — was an affront to the United States. I believe Israel has every right to do what it is doing, but the view of the visiting representative of the administration is that what it is doing is wrong and injurious to future prospects for peace, and this conflict of visions is not going to be resolved. Biden was embarrassed, his visit overshadowed, and expressions of diplomatic dismay appropriate as a result.

In the name of clearing up some of the scatter-shot commentary surrounding the flap, Media Matters Action Network has put together a helpful Myths and Facts sheet, partially reproduced here:

The Current State Of Affairs

MYTH: Obama Administration Provoked Current Imbroglio With Israel. In a statement released on Monday, March 15, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading “pro-Israel” lobbying organization, directly puts the blame on the Obama administration: “Members of the Obama administration have recently made statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel, which have heightened tensions with America’s only democratic ally in the region.” [AIPAC Press Release, 3/15/10]

FACT: Tensions Started When Israel Announced Construction Of More Settlements In East Jerusalem. According to the New York Times, “Hours after Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. vowed unyielding American support for Israel’s security here on Tuesday, Israel’s Interior Ministry announced 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Mr. Biden condemned the move as ‘precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.'” [New York Times, 3/9/10]

The Expansion Of Settlements

MYTH: Decision To Expand Settlements Is A Bureaucratic Misunderstanding. Speaking on the Senate floor on Monday, March 15, Senator Lieberman (I-CT) said, “From all that Israeli government has says and I have no reason to doubt them, a bureaucratic decision was made within one department of the government, the Ministry of the Interior, to issue a permit…” [Senate floor, 3/15/10]

FACT: Israel Prime Minister Himself Says The Expansion Of Settlements In East Jerusalem Will Continue. According to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said that Israel would continue to build in Jerusalem in the same way that it has over the last 42 years. ‘The building in Jerusalem – and in all other places – will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years,’ said Netanyahu at a Likud party meeting.  Israel drew angry reactions from the U.S. and the Palestinians by announcing last week the construction of 1,600 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week.” [Ha’aretz, 3/15/10]

Israel’s Effect On U.S. National Security

MYTH: Obama Administration Argument With Israel Is “Jeopardiz[ing] Our National Security.” Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) told Politico, “For this administration to treat our special relationship with Israel, one of our closest and most strategic Democratic allies, in this fashion is beyond irresponsible and jeopardizes America’s national security.” [Politico, 3/15/10]

FACT: The Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Endangers Our National Security. According to Globes, an Israeli business publication, “Commander of the US Army Central Command (CENTCOM) General David Petraeus sent a team of senior officers to meet with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen to express their concerns about the lack of progress in finding a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The senior officers came armed with a PowerPoint presentation putting forward the position that, in the eyes of Arab leaders the US is powerless to confront ‘stiff necked’ Israel, and that this was harming the status of the US in the region. Petraeus also sent a position paper on this issue to the White House several weeks before Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel.” [Globes, 3/15/10]

  • Expansion Of Settlements Threatens American Troops Serving In The Region.  Writing in Foreign Policy, Mark Perry explains, “When Vice President Joe Biden was embarrassed by an Israeli announcement that the Netanyahu government was building 1600 new homes in East Jerusalem, the administration reacted. But no one was more outraged than Biden who, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, engaged in a private, and angry, exchange with the Israeli Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus’s Mullen briefing:  ‘This is starting to get dangerous for us,’ Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. ‘What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.’ Yedioth Ahronoth went on to report: ‘The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel’s actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.’ The message couldn’t be plainer: Israel’s intransigence could cost American lives.” [Foreign Policy, 3/13/10]
  • Ali Gharib

    Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



    1. I’ll say it one last time — this a war of the clerks only. All will be forgotten (and, for all practical purposes, forgiven) in a few weeks’ time. There will be no fundamental change in US policy toward Israel, or Israeli policy on the West Bank. The Israelis can get away with anything short of genocide. (Actually, that one hasn’t been tested yet.)

    2. I have something else that the pundit class might care to discuss (anything to break the monotony): Paul Krugman’s NYT op-ed yesterday on China. Daniel Drezner, writing on Foreign Policy’s website, is calling Krugman a neocon for his sentiments. I thought the piece was the best thing Krugman’s written in years. Does the Left (Krugman aside)actually belive in coddling China — China the police state, oppressor of the Uighers and Tibetans?

    3. Ali – you say:

      “President Barack Obama and his team did not issue permits; they did not take over land, kicking out its residents; they did not offer incentives for new immigrants to move there; and they did not build housing units. These are all actions by Israel, for Israel, and of Israel.”

      However, all these actions are taken while the US continues to shovel billions of dollars in aid down Israel’s neck. And this has been the case for decades, right through Clinton’s “peace process” for example, when settlement-building accelerated and the US, as Israel’s lawyer, helped the latter reject the two-state solution at Camp David. The fact is that the US could have ended this a long time ago, using its massive leverage over its client, junior partner to force it to hand back E.Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Washington has instead preferred to manage the conflict, or to be seen to be managing it. Bibi is merely spoiling efforts to maintain that pretence. I think that’s what this row is really about.

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