Commentary Magazine


The Escalation of U.S.-Israel Tensions Continues

Secretary of State Clinton, in the context of the decision by Israel to approve 1,600 new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, said yesterday, “We are engaged in very active consultations with the Israelis over steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process.”

Here we go again. It is Israel that has to “demonstrate the requisite commitment to the [peace] process” — despite the fact that over the decades no nation on earth has given away more tangible assets or offered to give up more of its land for peace than Israel. That was the case with the Sinai Desert, the oil-rich land that Israel returned to Egypt in 1978 in exchange for Egypt’s recognition of Israel and normalized relations. For those keeping track, the Sinai desert is three times the size of Israel and accounted for more than 90 percent of the land Israel won in a war of aggression by Arab states against Israel in 1967. This was the case in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered almost all the territories in the West Bank and Gaza to Yasir Arafat, who rejected the offer and instead began a second intifada. And it was the case in Gaza in 2005, when Israel withdrew and did what no other nation — not the Jordanians, not the British, not anyone — has done before: provide the Palestinians with the opportunity for self-rule. In response, Israel was shelled by thousands of rockets and mortar attacks and Hamas used Gaza as its launching point.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict isn’t territorial, as Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has written; it is existential. The Palestinian leadership has yet to make its own inner peace with the existence of a Jewish state. Until that happens, issues like building new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem — whatever you think of the idea and the timing of the most recent announcement — are at most peripheral matters. Yet the Obama administration has chosen to make the issue of the settlements not only of central importance; it has (as the Jerusalem Post story says) “led many to believe that US-Israeli ties may be at their lowest point in history.”

What is the end game for the Obama administration? It could well be that Obama and his team are simply amateurish, reacting emotionally rather than strategically. It may be that there is an unusual animus toward Israel within the administration. Or it may be that, as Jeffrey Goldberg reports, Obama wants to “force a rupture in the governing coalition that will make it necessary for [Benjamin] Netanyahu to take into his government [Tzipi] Livni’s centrist Kadima Party” in the hopes of creating a “stable, centrist coalition” that is the “key to success.”

If that’s the case, then, as Noah Pollack argues here, Obama is in for a rude awakening. Inserting himself into the affairs of Israel to this degree, via this method, would be quite astonishing. And it’s worth recalling that in order to justify his timid early words regarding the Iranian suppression of liberty in the aftermath of the June 12 elections, Obama declared, “It’s not productive, given the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling … in Iranian elections.” There’s that old double standard again. When it comes to our ally Israel, like our Latin American ally Honduras, meddling seems to be a habit. With Iran we need to speak with solicitousness, with respect, and with words of assurance.

Tough on your friends and weak on your adversaries isn’t a winning formula in international affairs, or in life, as Barack Obama will (hopefully) soon discover during his tenure as president. Unfortunately, there is quite a cost to our nation in the process. Let’s hope that it’s Mr. Obama’s learning curve that accelerates and not tensions between America and Israel.