Mideast Briefing: SNAFU in U.S.-Israel Relations

Mideast Briefing: SNAFU in U.S.-Israel Relations

Ed Rettig, Acting Director, AJC Israel Office

April 1, 2010

The U.S. Army gave us the acronym “snafu.” As the Oxford Dictionary explains: “situation normal—all … fouled up,” meaning “a confused or chaotic state; a mess.” The U.S.-Israel relationship appears to be settling dangerously into a semi-permanent snafu. There is open, if officially unacknowledged speculation that Obama seeks to unseat Netanyahu, which would theoretically produce a government more amenable to U.S. initiatives. If that has been the Administration’s goal (not a proven allegation, to be sure) it misfired, since the Administration’s failure to address Palestinian contributions to lack of progress on the peace front fatally undercuts Israeli enthusiasm for any alternative government.

“Confidence-building measures” are what this latest period of tension was supposedly about. These “measures” are devices that allow diplomats to ignore deeper questions. In the hope that, if the diplomacy can be made to work, issues of principle will self-resolve, intellectually inelegant diplomatic arrangements often restrain ideological conflict until the parties are ready to move beyond discord. However time and time again, in this Palestinian/Israeli fracas, failure to address fundamentals has led to failure of diplomatically admirable processes.

The Israeli mainstream understands the elemental question deeply, but the Administration evidently does not. Presumably, a state of Palestine will fulfill the national rights of Palestinians, Israel of the Jews. Even the current Israeli right-dominated government supports a two-state solution, legitimizing a sovereign Palestinian entity. Palestinians, though, refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish State.

The Administration’s failure to address that issue anchors the Labor party in the coalition, and undermines the Kadima party’s claim that it could get better results were Tzipi Livni, its leader, prime minister. The Administration directs its energy toward the impact of symbolic gestures like a building freeze in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, as if this will magically create meaningful negotiations. It won’t because the failure of the Palestinians to recognize the fundamental right of the Jews to a state of their own is the great saboteur of Israeli confidence in these talks. That lack of confidence is the ultimate reason Mr. Netanyahu’s concessions are not as forthcoming as Senator Mitchell and others might like. The rights of the parties to national legitimacy are not secondary attributes of the conflict to be ignored for tactical negotiating gains. They are the heart of the conflict. Mutual recognition of fundamental justice on the other side is the key dynamic necessary to its resolution. The dysfunction is currently a Palestinian one, a fact the Administration abets by its inaction, even as it punishes the Israelis for their missteps.

Which leads to the question: How to decipher the American Administration’s endgame? Current polls show the U.S. losing the confidence of the politically critical Israeli center and left, voters who usually support peace moves in this democratic country. This is not like negotiating with dictatorships: the Israeli people and their opinions really matter to the success of the diplomatic process. Does American indifference imply an intention to impose a settlement irrespective of the views of Israel’s citizens? That won’t work.

Perhaps the U.S. has given up on a genuine negotiated peace process. The reaction to the Ramat Shlomo fiasco, the humiliation of Netanyahu, silence in the face of Palestinian provocation at Mughrabi Square in Ramallah—newly named for a notorious terrorist—may indicate that, instead of a practical hope for peace, the Administration is cynically promoting a new view of American interests: commitment to Israeli security (narrowly defined) alongside endless public friction.

Is this expected to elevate America’s standing in the Muslim world? Don’t bet the farm. America’s allies will draw conclusions about the dependability of U.S. alliances, and may seek other partners with whom to secure their future. If this view of U.S. attitudes is incorrect, it is nevertheless widely held in influential circles across the political spectrum in Israel. That alone requires American attention.

What is needed now? The Administration has shown how harshly it can behave when it is angry with its Israeli ally. It must show that it will exercise similar energy to move the Palestinians toward recognition of the fundamental justice of a Jewish state.

Oh, and what about that Iranian nuclear threat?

We are clearly going through a difficult period. But Passover arrives in its season to give us strength and perspective, teaching us: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” Surely that paradigm of hope, liberation and optimism, re-enacted every year at this time, served us well over the last 3500 years.

With warmest wishes for a meaningful, joyous Passover, I conclude as the Haggadah, the Passover Seder’s script, concludes: “Next year in Jerusalem.”