Thursday, March 11, 2010

A big setback for peace prospects

Juan Cole (Informed Comment 03/11/10) recounts the results of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "bitch slap" diplomacy during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel. And it's bad:

Obama's Mideast policy lies in tatters this morning and US credibility as a broker of any future settlement was deeply wounded.

Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, announced Wednesday that he had been informed by Palestine Authority president Mahmoud Abbas that the latter has pulled out of indirect talks with Israel. Late Wednesday, the Arab League itself reversed its earlier cautious endorsement of the proximity talks, recommending that that support be dropped.

Israeli colonization of Palestinian territory lies at the heart of the Mideast conflict. It isn't a complicated issue in the law, since Israel's actions are clearly illegal and unethical to boot. But might makes right and Israel is the most powerful country in the Middle East, so all the protests on legal and humanitarian grounds have amounted to nothing.

The talks were likely deliberately sabotaged by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who had his Interior Minister announce the construction of 1600 new households in Occupied East Jerusalem the day before they were scheduled to begin. In fact, Israel is actively planning 50,000 further housing units on occupied Palestinian territory. US Vice President Joe Biden had come to kick off the process with visits to Netanyahu and Abbas, but he has now been sent home empty-handed by Netanyahu's sheer effrontery. [my emphasis]
American foreign policy has been plagued with a misplaced emphasis on American "credibility" in a general sense. But Neyanyahu's government has challenged the Obama administration's credibility in a very specific way that requires more than a rhetorical response like diplomatic expressions of deep regret or whatever. And the Israel-Palestine peace process is something that's very much in America's national interest.

Cole puts it this way:

Obama is in real danger of seeing his allies lose respect for the United States once they see that Israel can treat him in this humiliating way with impunity. The security implications for the US are enormous. Many European allies feel strongly that Israel is an aggressor state in the region, and when Obama asks them for help in the fight against al-Qaeda, they may feel that Washington's coddling of Israeli colonialism produced much of the radicalism that they are now asked to spend blood and treasure combating. Moreover, many leaders may be emboldened to treat Obama and Biden just as Netanyahu did, if the latter faces no consequences for his impudence.
We have wars going in Iraq and Afghanistan/Pakistan, and are actively intervening in Somalia, Yemen and probably Iran. Those Muslim nations and their attitudes toward the United States are affected by US policy toward Israel-Palestine, as well as by the deaths on their own territories from US military actions. That emotional investment in the Israel-Palestine situation may be irrational. But then so is Israel's determination to colonize the West Bank and keep the Palestinians there and in Gaza stateless indefinitely.

Biden made a vague but likely empty comment to the effect that the Obama administration would hold Israel accountable for the diplomatic punch they delivered to Biden's mission (Biden tells Palestinians U.S. won't be deterred by Paul Richter Los Angeles Times 03/11/10):

Around the Middle East, the exchange was seen as proof that the latest peace initiative was doomed and that the U.S. protests were unlikely to lead to more strenuous action.

In an appearance with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at his headquarters in Ramallah, Biden again scolded the Israelis. He said U.S. officials "will hold both sides accountable for any statements or actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of talks, as this decision did."
Arab nations understandably have reason to be dubious:

Biden's visit dominated headlines and news broadcasts across the region, but the sight of the vice president embracing Israeli officials disappointed many skeptical Arabs.

"Biden has said that Washington is committed indefinitely to Israel's security," said an Egyptian radio commentary broadcast Wednesday. "Hence, the decision of Tel Aviv to build 1,600 [housing units] in eastern Jerusalem is not strange."

A correspondent on the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera said Biden's visit was primarily intended to reassure Israel that the U.S. would confront Iran.

But commentators said Washington's unqualified commitment to Israel's definition of its own security guaranteed the failure of any peace talks.
I find Biden's somewhat old-fashioned style of grandiloquent glad-handing to be often pretty endearing. But it doesn't look like it served him well on this trip. Paul Richter previously reported (Biden's Israel visit takes a rocky turn Los Angeles Times 03/09/10):

In the first hours of his visit, the vice president, who was staunchly pro-Israel during his many years in the Senate, played down frictions and emphasized his personal love for the country.

"It's great to be home," Biden told President Shimon Peres during a morning visit to his official residence.

He set aside criticism of Israelis or Palestinians, saying that "it's easy to point fingers at what both sides have done. But it's also important to give credit for what has been done."

Biden offered praise for Israel's temporary halt on settlement growth, and for allowing Palestinians to move more freely in the West Bank.

"The cornerstone of the relationship is our absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security," he said. In the guestbook at Peres' residence, Biden wrote that the U.S.-Israeli bond is "unshakeable."

When Netanyahu presented Biden a picture of a grove of trees Israel had planted in honor of his late mother, Biden responded that "my love for your country was watered by this Irish lady." [my emphasis]
Given that his visit to Israel was intended to build Israeli public support for the American peace process ideas that Netanyahu's government opposes, Biden probably shouldn't have been using such extravagant language since he knew that the Israeli government wouldn't be entirely happy about his visit.

Stephen Walt weighs in on the Biden visit in Welcome to Israel, Mr. Vice-President! Foreign Policy 03/11/10:

... why should anyone be surprised by this sort of "in-your-face" reception? The Netanyahu government has been stonewalling Obama ever since the Cairo speech, and so far the only price they have paid was some tut-tutting that they were being "unhelpful." Some observers used to maintain that Israeli prime ministers got in trouble at home if they didn’t get along with the U.S. president, but Bibi's popularity seems to have been enhanced by his spats with Obama and Mitchell. If Biden was expecting a love-fest when he arrived, he just hasn’t been paying attention. ...

There isn’t going to be any deal if the United States and/or EU don't put a lot of pressure on Israel, and Barack Obama has already shown us that he’s not capable of doing that. There may be some more sharp words from Washington (i.e., Biden has already "condemned" Israel’s action and Bibi has expressed regret for the timing of the announcement), but don’t expect anything significant. So the proximity talks are pointless, ... and people ought to start thinking about what they'll do if it ever becomes clear that "two states for two peoples" just ain’t gonna happen. ...

Just as America’s dominant position allowed it to pursue a lot of ill-advised excesses over the past fifteen years (see under: Iraq), America’s “special relationship” with Israel has insulated the latter from the consequences of its own follies. We see the results in the entire settlement enterprise -- which threatens to turn Israel into an apartheid state and jeopardizes its long-term future -- and in ham-fisted diplomatic kerfluffles like the Biden visit or the deliberate humiliation of the Turkish Ambassador by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. The original Zionists faced a more challenging environment and usually acted with great adroitness, consistency of purpose and imagination, while their successors in recent decades have been able to misbehave in part because Uncle Sam was always there to provide support and diplomatic cover. And that’s why some of us think the “special relationship” is unintentionally harmful to both countries, and that a normal relationship would be in everyone’s interest. [my emphasis]
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