Senate to Obama: Respect Israel

The president's on notice.

Back when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction in late November, the timing was not accidental. It was reasonably speculated that the expiration date—late September, i.e., now—was calculated as a point at which U.S. president Barack Obama, under whose pressure the freeze was instated in the first place, would be in a weak position.

Back in November, Obama’s once-soaring domestic popularity had already taken a plunge, and it could be conjectured that he would be in the same or worse shape come September—with, moreover, his party facing midterm elections. Presumably, then, once Obama inevitably began pressuring Israel to extend the moratorium, whether or not talks with the Palestinians were taking place, he wouldn’t be able to do it with much “oomph” given Israel’s support in Congress and the U.S. public at large.

Has Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas outsmarted this strategy? It may well seem so.

As it turned out, Abbas continued stonewalling putative “peace talks” with Israel until the settlement moratorium had almost run out, and then claimed he was hanging his further participation on its extension. By all accounts, he only finally agreed to enter the talks under heavy U.S. and European pressure. Yet, thanks to his timing, with the end of the freeze approaching, the pressure now shifted to—Netanyahu.

And, sure enough, when the moratorium ran its course early this week without being renewed, and building, albeit small-scale, resumed in a few Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it was Israel that drew international ire.

U.S. State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley said the U.S. was “disappointed” by the building resumption. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon also said he was “disappointed” and “concerned at provocative actions taking place on the ground,” and claimed settlement activity was “illegal under international law.”

The same term served British foreign secretary William Hague, who said he was “disappointed to hear that the moratorium has not been renewed” and “call[ed] on Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government to show leadership to resolve this so the parties can focus on the real challenges ahead.” As for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, she too was unequivocal, saying she “strongly regrets” the resumed construction and that “the position of the EU is very clear: settlements are illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible.”

Whether or not the talks eventually resume, this de rigueur but significant tongue-lashing may make it seem that Abbas has again won the PR battle, setting up Israel as the villain that prefers the supposedly nefarious settlements to peace.

Israel is, however, receiving support from one important source—the U.S. Senate—in a way that suggests Netanyahu’s apparent initial strategy may not have been so misplaced after all.

Eighty-seven senators have already signed a letter to Obama that takes a quite different view of the situation from that expressed by Crowley, Ban, Hague, and Ashton.

Starting by “express[ing] our appreciation for your successful effort to restart direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians,” the letter’s key passage states:

Unfortunately, it is clear that enemies of peace will do everything in their power to derail the direct talks, as evidenced by recent outrageous acts of violence by Hamas…. Following the brutal murder of four innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas at the start of the negotiations,…Netanyahu did not abandon the talks. Instead—after forcefully condemning the attack—he reached out to…Abbas saying, “You are my partner for peace. Peace begins with leaders.” We agree with the Prime Minister, and we also agree with you that it is critical that all sides stay at the table. Neither side should make threats to leave just as the talks are getting started.

No less significant than what an overwhelming, bipartisan majority of the Senate says here is what it left out—namely, the settlement-freeze issue, of which there is no mention in the letter. Instead the reference to “mak[ing] threats to leave just as the talks are getting started” is a none-too-veiled criticism of Abbas, pointedly contrasted to Netanyahu’s remaining in the talks despite terrorist provocations.

I’ve argued that the talks in any case are misconceived and harmful, ignoring the Palestinians’ ongoing fundamental hostility to Israel and drawing a false connection between Israel’s retreat to indefensible borders and peace. Others have criticized Netanyahu’s whole approach of acquiescing to U.S. pressure and projecting himself as an enthusiast of the talks and of Abbas as a partner.

But given that this is the course Netanyahu has taken, it’s important that a modicum of justice attend the unfolding events. With that commodity lacking in EU and UN quarters and in the administration itself, its continued existence in the Senate, as representative of the U.S. public as a whole, is a plus for Israel.

Last spring when Obama led his administration in a particularly nasty assault on Israel over plans to build apartments in Jerusalem, the Senate also came to Israel’s defense—but with a letter addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rather than Obama, thereby mitigating its impact. The fact that the current letter is addressed to the president—and also refers to the earlier letter to Clinton, subtly underlining the contrast—reinforces the warning to Obama that reflexively taking the Palestinian side is not a wise political tack for him.

Obama is on notice that giving a free pass to the side that stonewalls, threatens, and extorts will do nothing to shore up his already tottering fortunes.