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|Israeli relations hit rock bottom|
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden toured the Middle East as part of a diplomatic effort to address Iranian nuclear policy and the on-again, off-again Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Unfortunately, those talks have been interrupted; the result of which will be more cruelty and loss of life on both sides and yet another deferment of bilateral negotiations.
In fact, within two days of the U.S. brokered agreement (the first negotiations between the sides in nearly a year), Israel's Interior Ministry revealed plans to build a new neighborhood of 1,600 homes in disputed East Jerusalem, specifically in a neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo, or Shlomo's Heights.
Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, claimed, "It's a really disastrous situation. I hope that this will be an eye-opener for all in the international community about the need to have the Israeli government stop such futile exercises."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, confirming the Obama administration's rejection of additional settlements and showing a bit of a surprise over the development project in East Jerusalem, considered the announcement a "deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship."
Obama's chief consultant David Axelrod said the move, which overshadowed Vice-President Biden's visit to Israel, was "insult to the United States."
Even Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, stated, "The crisis was very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations." And later he added, "Ties between Israel and the U.S. are the worst in 35 years."
While these statements certainly deserve to make headlines, the actuality is somewhat less exhilarating. The U.S. and Israel have a strong, long-term, mutually beneficial and strategic relationship that neither can afford to jeopardize for the sake of scoring a few domestic points.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the Knesset (their parliament) and said, "Building these Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem does not hurt the Arabs of East Jerusalem or come at their expense."
Now, U.S. special peace envoy George Mitchell, who was planning another peace mission to the region, has seen his efforts thwarted until Obama's demands are met. Primarily, those demands involve a cessation of settlements.
But what is all of this about in the first place?
Since the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel has expanded settlements in more than 100 locations where almost 500,000 Jews live. These settlements are in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this. Initially, this area was settled in 1995, and was soon to become a multiuse sports stadium. But, the Haredi (or Ultra-Orthodox) Jews living there protested this move. By 2008, Ramat Shlomo had become a settlement site with more planned for the future. Palestinians living in the adjacent refugee camp of Shuafat and the old community of Beit Hanina have remained bitterly opposed to additional settlements. Included now in this mêlée is the United Nations. On Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and added his voice to those calling on a building freeze.
Thus, here we are today.
To understand this region, its distinct culture and political landscape, it is indispensable to recognize that the essence of the conflict can be reduced to a simple statement: two nations struggling to define their borders under immense international scrutiny and pressure.
Further, a strong Israel with U.S. support (not necessarily unconditional) is a critical piece to a much larger Middle Easstrategy that includes Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. For Israel, this debate over settlements is part of a larger concern over the separation of synagogue and state. Palestinians, too, cannot afford a greatly diminished Israel because of synergistic economic opportunities, especially jobs related to tourism. Also, Palestinians are learning self-government and democratic governance from their association with Israelis.
American interests here are important, but do we really want to brawl with Israel over settlements? An internal matter? Can we really expect for Israel to always acquiesce to our demands, especially when they run counter to their perceived national security?
For now, it appears that this administration wants to test the limits of what Israel can realistically do. The Middle East is a tough neighborhood. Israel must be able to depend on her American supporters even in times of disagreement.
Consider this: if you really want to affect change in Israeli policy, is this the right way? Does an isolated Israel foster a climate for peace or one of fear and hysteria?
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs asserted, "Mature bilateral relationships can have disagreements."
He is correct. But the follow up must be to provide an honorable and safe manner for Israel to manage her own affairs without sacrificing the long-term objective of a Palestinian state.
Only a strong, safe Israel can make peace with the Palestinians.
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John W. Sutherlin, PhD, is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. He also is co-director at the ULM Social Science Research Lab. He can be reached by e-mailing Sutherlin@ulm.edu.