Jeff Blankfort sums up the small turbulence in American-Israeli relations after Biden affront. He doubts Netanyahu’s innocence for Israelis always behaved like that just in order to rub the American statesmen’s noses in the mud of their impotence. His conclusion: nothing will come out of it, because nothing ever did.
Joe Biden and Benyamin Netanyahu
If the State Department had issued travel advisory warnings to US government officials about to travel to Israel, Vice President Joe Biden would have no doubt ignored them. A better friend to Israel could not have been found in the 36 years that Biden represented Delaware in the US Senate and there was speculation that his popularity among Jewish voters and major Jewish donors was the primary reason he was added to the Democratic ticket. According to all reports, Biden’s trip was to mend fences with the Israeli officials and with the Israeli Jewish public which had become disenchanted with the Obama administration where the president’s popularity is measured in the low single digits.
Indeed, even a day after having been blind-sided by the announcement that Israel would build 1600 new and exclusively Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem, Biden was still trying. In a prepared speech, he once again bragged, this time to a Tel Aviv university audience, that he was a Zionist and that, “Throughout my career, Israel has not only remained close to my heart but it has been the center of my work as a United States Senator and now as Vice President of the United States,” a statement that should raise questions about dual loyalties and which, curiously, was omitted from all reports on his speech in the US press.
In addition, Biden repeated what he said on his arrival in Jerusalem, that, “There is no space — this is what they [the world] must know, every time progress is made, it’s made when the rest of the world knows there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space. That’s the only time when progress has been made.” Biden did not offer any examples of such progress and would have had a hard time doing so.
It was not until the end of his speech, after he had thoroughly regurgitated the standard Israeli line on the threats to its existence from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, that he felt safe to offer words of criticism for his treatment at the hands of his hosts. The words of condemnation issued the previous day, however, were patently missing. Almost apologizing for doing so, Biden told his audience:
“Now, some legitimately may have been surprised that such a strong supporter of Israel for the last 37 years and beyond… as an elected official, how I can speak out so strongly given the ties that I share as well as my country shares with Israel. But quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth.
“And I appreciate… the response your Prime Minister today announced this morning that he is putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence of that sort of that sort of events [sic] and who clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years … That’s significant, because it gives negotiations the time to resolve this, as well as other outstanding issues. Because when it was announced, I was on the West Bank. Everyone there thought it had meant immediately the resumption of the construction of 1,600 new units.”
What, of course, Biden meant was not that Israel should not be able do as it pleases in East Jerusalem, but that announcements of its plans should be handled in a more tactful manner, when, presumably, he, or other US officials are several thousand miles away.
Biden, of course, was patently ignoring repeated statements by Netanyahu that Israel’s decisions to build in East Jerusalem will not be subject either to pressure from Washington or negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Moreover, as Ha’aretz noted, those projected 1600 units are only a small part of 50,000 units planned for the eastern part of the city, which was annexed in 1967, and which are designed to preclude it not only from becoming the capital of a Palestinian state but also to prevent Palestinian residents of the city from traveling to the West Bank.
According to Yediot Ahronoth, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, Biden had privately complained to Netanyahu that Israel’s behavior was “starting to get dangerous for us.” “What you’re doing here,” he reportedly said, “undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace.” That Biden made such a statement has been denied by the White House, but it follows closely an earlier memorandum sent by General Petraeus to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his testimony before a US Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
In his prepared statement, Petraeus depicted the Israeli-Arab conflict as the first “cross cutting challenge to security and stability” in the CENTCOM area of responsibility [AOR]. “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR.”
Treading in an area where few members of the US military have dared to go before, Petraeus observed that “The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world.” It should be noted that neither the NY Times’ Elizabeth Bumiller nor the Washington Post’s Anne Flaherty included any reference to these comments by Petraeus in their coverage of his testimony.
In other words, in the view of Gen. Petraeus, resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict is critical to the US national interest and that, plus his reference to the “perception” of Washington’s pro-Israel bias, is what may have been what, for the moment, occasioned President Obama through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ratchet up the criticism and publicly brand Israel’s treatment of Biden as “insulting.”
Rather than letting the issue die, she had her office publicize the fact that she had given a piece of her mind to Netanyahu in a 43 minute phone call in which, according to her spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, she described the planned units in East Jerusalem as sending a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip" and that "this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests."
Moreover, she made three demands of Netanyahu that were spelled out in the Israeli press but which were only alluded to in the US media: cancelling the decision to approve the 1600 units, making a "significant" gesture to the Palestinian Authority to get it back to the bargaining table, and issuing a public statement that the indirect talks will deal with all the core issues, including Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. Pretty heady stuff for those used to see Clinton falling all over herself to show her loyalty to Israel.
To emphasize the US position, the Obama administration cancelled the scheduled visit of Middle East envoy George Mitchell who had planned to meet with Israelis and Palestinians in what had been touted by the administration as “proximity talks.”
The gravity of the situation was not lost upon Israel’s new ambassador, American-born historian, Michael Oren, who, in a conference call with Israel’s US consulates, reportedly expressed the opinion (which he now denies) that this was the worst crisis in US-Israel relations since 1975 when Pres. Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger publicly blamed Israel for the breakdown of negotiations with Egypt over withdrawing from the Sinai. As a consequence, Ford announced that he was going to make a major speech calling for a reassessment of Israel-US relations. Although hardly the powerhouse that it has become today, AIPAC, the only officially registered pro-Israel lobby, responded to the threat by getting 76 senators to sign a harsh letter to Ford, warning him not to tamper with Israel-US relations. Ford never made the speech and it would not be the last time that AIPAC got three quarters of the US Senate to sign a letter designed to keep an American president in check.
Others point to the nationally televised speech on September 12, 1991 of the first President Bush, who, upon realizing that AIPAC had secured enough votes in both houses of Congress to override his veto of Israel’s request for $10 billion in loan guarantees, went before the American public depicting himself as “one lonely little guy” battling a thousand lobbyists on Capitol Hill. A national poll taken immediately afterward gave the president an 85 per cent approval rating which sent the lobby and its Congressional flunkies scuttling into the corner but not before AIPAC director, Tom Dine, exclaimed at that date, Sept. 12, 1991, “would live in infamy.” Following the election of Yitzhak Rabin the following year and up for re-election himself, Bush relented and approved the loan guarantee request.
There are those who, while aware of what happened to Ford and of the subsequent humiliations visited by Israel upon American presidents and secretaries of state, view the Biden affair as a charade designed to placate the heads of Arab governments as well as their respective peoples and give the impression that there is a space between Israel and the US when it comes to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict when, they assert, none exists.
Viewing the unrelenting expansion of Jewish settlements and settlers in the West Bank through one US administration after another for the past four decades they would appear to have a solid argument. It is undermined, however, by one obvious fact: while the rest of the world considers the Israel-Palestine conflict to be a foreign policy concern, for Washington and both Democrats and Republicans it has been and remains primarily a domestic issue. In that arena there is only one player, the pro-Israel “lobby” which is represented by a multitude of organizations, the most prominent of which is AIPAC.
As if it needed more help, flocking to Israel’s side in increasing numbers over the past several decades have come the majority of America’s Christian evangelicals whose doomsday theology fits in nicely with that of Israel’s ultra right wing settler movement. The result is that in each election cycle anyone with any hope of being elected to a national political office, be it in the White House or Congress, whether incumbent or challenger, feels obligated to express his or her unconditional loyalty to Israel by shamelessly groveling for handouts from Jewish donors and the nod from Jewish voters who make up critical voting blocs in at least six states.
This being the case, it is not so strange that a string of leading elected American officials would willingly submit to public humiliation by a country so politically and militarily dependent on the U.S. and whose population is less than that of New York City or Los Angeles County, even when doing so has made the U.S. seem weak in the eyes of a world in which Washington has other, more pressing interests, than pleasing Israel. There is no better example of this phenomenon than Barack Obama whose stature as leader of “the world’s only superpower” has been severely undercut by repeated verbal face-slappings at the hands of Netanyahu and his cabinet ministers.
It clearly has been in the US interest that the Israel-Palestine conflict be peacefully resolved. There is nothing in the proposed “two-state solution” that would interfere with Washington’s regional objectives. On the contrary, the creation of a truncated Palestinian statelet, allied and dependent, politically and financially on the US, as it most certainly would be, would be a boon to US regional interests and ultimately viewed as a setback for anti-imperialist struggles worldwide. It was not just to expend some US taxpayers’ money that the GW Bush administration built a four story security building for the PA in Ramallah (that Sharon later destroyed), brought PA security personnel to Langley, VA for training with the CIA, and had Gen. Dayton build a colonial army to maintain order.
Israeli officials view all of this from a very different perspective, as should be obvious, and will do everything they can to prevent any kind of a Palestinian entity from coming into existence since this would interfere not only with its expansion plans but would also create a junior competitor for US favors in the region. This was why Sharon targeted the US built institutions on the West Bank and the CIA trained personnel during the Al-Aksa Intifada despite the fact that they were non-participants, which raised the hackles at CIA headquarters, as reported at the time in the Washington Post.
What the insult to Biden was clearly designed to do, as were the previous humiliations, was to remind the current and future occupants of the White House that when it comes to making decisions concerning the Middle East, it is Israel that calls the tune. As Stephen Green spelled it out in "Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations with Militant Israel" (Morrow, 1984) a quarter century ago, "Since 1953, Israel, and friends of Israel in America, have determined the broad outlines of US policy in the region. It has been left to American presidents to implement that policy, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, and to deal with tactical issues."
That Netanyahu was also taken unawares by the announcement concerning the housing units as he claimed is questionable, particularly since he has apologized only for its timing, not its content and the offending minister remains unpunished. Netanyahu was surely cognizant that next week he will be coming to Washington to speak before AIPAC’s annual policy conference where he will find a greater degree of support than anywhere in his own country. Last year’s conference attracted a record 7,000 attendees plus half of the US Senate and a third of the House and it is likely to be ever larger this year in response to the administration’s perceived hostility to Israel.
Netanyahu will no doubt happily recall that before he met with President Obama for the first time last year, 76 US senators, led by Christopher Dodd and Evan Bayh, and 330 members of the House, sent AIPAC- crafted letters to the president calling on him not to put pressure on the Israeli prime minister when they met. The only report of this in the mainstream media was by a Washington post blogger who noted the AIPAC tagline on the pdf that was circulated among House members. Netanyahu will also be succored by memories of the House’s near unanimous support of Israel’s assault on Gaza and by its 334 to 36 vote condemning the Goldstone Report in its aftermath.
In addition, during last year’s Congressional summer recess, 55 members of the House, 30 Democrats led by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and 25 Republicans, led by Eric Cantor, the House’s lone Jewish Republican member, visited Jerusalem. Both groups met with Netanyahu and afterward held press conferences in which they expressed their solidarity with Israel, particularly with its claims on East Jerusalem, at a time when the Obama administration was calling for a settlement freeze. These visits, too, went unreported in the mainstream media.
Under the present circumstances, we can expect to see AIPAC extend every effort to make this year’s event the largest and more successful yet and there should be no doubt that those attending will give a far more rousing welcome to Netanyahu and to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is also on the AIPAC program, than to Secretary of State Clinton.
AIPAC is already posting statements on its website from members of Congress who are taking the Obama administration to task for making its differences with Israel public and for keeping the issue alive when the focus should not be on Jewish settlements but on the growing threat of a nuclear Iran which has been at the top of AIPAC’s agenda since the beginning of the Iraq War.
Nevertheless, given that the Democratic Party remains dependent on wealthy Jewish donors for the bulk of its major funding, estimated to be at least 60 per cent, and that this is an election year, we can expect Clinton to reach out and once again embrace Israel as she did at the 2008 AIPAC conference when, Biden-like, she said, “I have a bedrock commitment to Israel’s security, because Israel’s security is critical to our security….[A]ll parties must know we will always stand with Israel in its struggle for peace and security. Israel should know that the United States will never pressure her to make unilateral concessions or to impose a made-in-America solution.”
For those with short memories, here is a sampling of past humiliations of US presidents and secretaries of state at the hands of our loyal ally:
March, 1980, President Carter was forced to apologize after US UN representative Donald McHenry voted for a resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement policies in the occupied territories including East Jerusalem and which called on Israel to dismantle them. McHenry had replaced Andrew Young who was pressured to resign in 1979 after an Israeli newspaper revealed that he had held a secret meeting with a PLO representative which violated a US commitment to Israel and to the American Jewish community.
June, 1980 After Carter requested a halt to Jewish settlements and his Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie, called the Jewish settlements an obstacle to peace, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced plans to construct 10 new ones.
In December, 1981, 14 days after signing what was described as a memorandum of strategic understanding with the Reagan administration, Israel annexed the Golan Heights “which made it appear that the US either acquiesced in the move or else has absolutely no control over its own ally’s actions. In both cases the US looks bad….he has once again poked his ally, the source of all his most sophisticated weapons and one third of his budget in the eye.” (Lars Erik-Nelson)
In August, 1982, the day after Reagan requested that Ariel Sharon end the bombing of Beirut, Sharon responded by ordering bombing runs over the city at precisely 2:42 and 3:38 in the afternoon, the times coinciding with the two UN resolutions requiring Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.
In March, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker complained to Congress that “Every time I have gone to Israel in connection with the peace process.., I have been met with an announcement of new settlement activity… It substantially weakens our hand in trying to bring about a peace process, and creates quite a predicament.” In 1990, he had become so disgusted with Israel’s intransigence on the settlements that he publicly gave out the phone number of the White House switchboard and told the Israelis, "When you’re serious about peace, call us."
In April 2002, after Pres. George W Bush demanded that Ariel Sharon pull Israeli forces out of Jenin, declaring “Enough is enough!,” he was besieged by a 100,000 emails from supporters of Israel, Jewish and Christian and accused by Bill Safire of choosing Yasser Arafat as a friend over Sharon and by George Will, of losing his “moral clarity.” Within days, a humiliated Bush was declaring Sharon “a man of peace” despite the fact that he had not withdrawn his troops from Jenin.
In January 2009, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly boasted that he had “shamed” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by getting President Bush to prevent her from voting for a Gaza cease-fire resolution at the last moment that she herself had worked on for several days with Arab and European diplomats at the United Nations.
Olmert bragged to an Israeli audience that he pulled Bush off a stage during a speech to take his call when he learned about the pending vote and demanded that the president intervene.
“I have no problem with what Olmert did,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Forward. “I think the mistake was to talk about it in public.”
That episode and Foxman’s comment may have summed up the history of US-Israel relations.
Weekend Edition, March 19 - 21, 2010.
Jeffrey Blankfort was raised in a Jewish non-Zionist family. He produces radio programs on three stations and has written extensively on the Middle East. He was formerly the editor of the Middle East Labor Bulletin and co-founder of the Labor Committee of the Middle East. His photographs of the Anti-Vietnam War and Black Panthers Movements have appeared in numerous books and magazines.
In February 2002, he won a lawsuit against the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which was found to have had a vast spying operation directed against American citizens opposed to Israel’s policies in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza and to the apartheid policies of the government of South Africa and passing on information to both governments.