How much can you berate a friend and still call him or her a friend?
As Israel continues to dust off from the latest dust-up with her closest ally, it might be wondering about the future of a once-storied friendship. Over the Passover holiday week, a period of relative quiet has set in. But we can’t let this seeming calm make us complacent that things are back to normal.
It’s quite possible that this strained relationship is the new normal. And that will require some major adjustments.
Taken together, Vice President Joe Biden’s harsh condemnation of a construction announcement during his March trip to Israel, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s reported lambasting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and other public rebukes by the administration form a dangerous and shocking pattern.
Before this, the United States, which has historically been Israel’s only real friend in the court of public opinion, has kept its differences with Israel largely off the general radar. Aggressive and open criticism of Israel is a rarity. This type of criticism represents a disturbing change and warrants dogged attention.
In its anger over the March settlement announcement, the United States made an end to all settlement activity, including in Jerusalem, a condition for peace talks to begin. But it hasn’t put similar conditions on the Palestinians regarding, for example, something as deadly as Palestinian incitement of hatred – in the Palestinian press, on the airwaves, and in Friday sermons – which is a deep and pervasive problem that permeates all aspects of peace efforts.
There seems to be an asymmetrical series of expectations in the administration’s demands on Israel; Israelis should do the heavy lifting, while the Palestinians – who have been cast as the weaker party – are often given a free pass.
While demanding Israel halt settlement construction, the White House, for instance, hasn’t demanded that the Palestinians shut down the deadly al-Aksa Martyrs’ Brigades, the terrorist wing of Fatah, as it was required to do after the 1993 Oslo Accords. Fatah late last year re-endorsed armed struggle against the Jewish state. One might think dropping calls for armed struggle would be a prerequisite for conducting serious peace talks. But Fatah, controlled by Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is not held to account for this.
Logic would dictate that Israel would be in the right to impose its own demands: to say no to any talks until incitement ends, or Hamas terrorists stop firing rockets and mortars on Israeli civilians, or Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit – kidnapped nearly four years ago in a cross-border raid – is returned home safely. What is left for Israel to negotiate in direct talks if the White House has sought to predetermine two key issues: the status of Jerusalem and an end to settlement activity?
With this kind of approach, what’s to prevent the Palestinians from constantly upping the ante and threatening to scuttle talks every time its demands are not met? In fact, the Palestinians have already raised the stakes – warning they will unilaterally declare statehood by 2011. This idea, which has already been embraced by several European diplomats, suggests that any agreement to participate in indirect talks may simply be a stalling tactic, and that the Palestinians are really counting on international pressure to get Israel to accept statehood, absent negotiations.
By allowing those who oppose peace to believe a Palestinian state will exist without peace talks will surely invite instability. No one expects a perfect peace. But there must be a negotiated peace that includes an acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state before a Palestinian state is created.
So far, the administration’s aggressive stance does not reflect the views of most Americans. A recent Gallup poll finds that 63 percent of Americans are more sympathetic to Israel than to Palestinians. That’s the highest American support has been in 20 years.
The U.S.-Israel relationship is truly two-way. Israel, an innovative, technological marvel, provides the United States with an invaluable ally in a volatile region. The United States can no more afford to lose Israel as a trusted friend and partner than Israel can afford to lose the United States.
The harsh language, unfair demands, and collateral damage the administration has engaged in over these last few weeks sends the wrong message to the wrong people: that the ties that bind the U.S.-Israel friendship are fraying. In the rush to achieve a solution within 24 months, as some administration leaders have proposed, we must avoid inviting further instability in the region. The administration’s impatience, in the form of its harsh criticism and unilateral demands, is misdirected. An incomplete and ill-conceived peace plan will whet the appetites of those whose interests are inimical to peace.
Clearly, there is something wrong with this picture. Let’s hope the United States can refocus.