PICTURE this scenario: four Israeli youths are shot dead by the Palestinian police, which claims they were making a nuisance of themselves by shouting slogans and throwing stones. The teenagers’ families and the Israeli authorities deny the charge and say the killings were gratuitous. The international media ignores the incident or, at best, treats it as an insignificant footnote. This kind of thing, after all, occurs every other day in the Middle East…
It’s almost impossible to imagine such a course of events. But reverse the identities, substitute army for police, and it’s almost exactly what happened in the space of 24 hours in the occupied West Bank, beginning on the afternoon of the Sabbath. The four Palestinian fatalities in two separate incidents were overshadowed, of course, by news related to kinks in the relationship between Israel and its chief sponsor, but it’s unlikely they would have received much attention anyway.
The spat between the US and Israel stemmed from an announcement about the construction of 1,600 housing units in Arab east Jerusalem, but it was sparked not so much by the announcement as its timing: it occurred during a visit to Israel by Vice-President Joe Biden, a self-proclaimed Zionist. It is unlikely to have been a coincidence, although it’s conceivable that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indeed taken by surprise.
Netanyahu is anything but conciliatory in the Israeli-Palestinian context, but his Likud party holds about one-sixth of the seats in the Knesset and his cabinet includes members who are even further to the right, notably the unspeakable Avigdor Lieberman, perhaps the first foreign minister anywhere in the world to live outside the country he represents; he resides in a West Bank settlement that is illegal under international law. The interior ministry, meanwhile, is run by the chairman of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Eli Yishai.
It is certainly possible that the housing announcement was deliberately intended to embarrass a US administration that has meekly sought a construction freeze in Jewish settlements on occupied territory – a request that has anyhow been ignored. In Israeli right-wing circles, perceptions of Barack Obama appear to be based on the wholly distorted images projected by Fox News and Republican extremists. When Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Hagai Ben-Artzi, declared in a radio interview that he considers Obama an anti-Semite, the prime minister was quick to dissociate himself from the suggestion, but the misapprehension is not restricted to the loony fringes of Israeli society.
Netanyahu himself is believed to referred to Obama’s political adviser David Axelrod and chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel as “self-hating Jews”, the usual epithet for adherents to the Jewish faith who dare to be even mildly critical of the Israeli regime.
At any rate, when Biden rang the White House to relate his predicament, Obama was reportedly “incandescent with rage”, and the US government’s displeasure was subsequently reflected in statements by Axelrod and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that led Israel’s ambassador to Washington to claim that relations between his country and the US were facing their biggest crisis in 35 years. By then, the leading lights of the Israel lobby in the US were already busy castigating the Obama administration for daring to question Israeli government actions.
This is by no means the first time that the US has been involved in a spat with Israel over the latter’s policy on settlements, and the change in attitudes between the Bush administration, which saw little need for balance, and its successor is marginal. It doesn’t necessarily follow that it is altogether insignificant, and it is certainly worth noting that the top American military brass has lately deemed it prudent to publicly point out that perceptions of a pro-Israeli US bias impede American interests in the Muslim world – and may even be costing American lives.
This is hardly a novel observation. It is at the same time important to acknowledge that Muslim emotional investment in the Palestinian cause has been prompted largely on parochial grounds: that is to say, had the majority of Palestinians belonged to a different faith, their plight would barely have made a blip on the Muslim radar, and chances are it would not have registered at all had the oppressors been Muslims. The reverse side of the coin is, of course, that in the wider world the victims of injustice in Israeli occupied territories are denied the sympathy and support they deserve precisely because the majority of them are Muslims. Perhaps inevitably, these unfortunate attitudes feed upon each other.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, a couple of phone calls between Clinton and Netanyahu evidently served to iron out the kinks in US-Israeli relations, with both sides claiming vindication. Before leaving for the US to address a gathering of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), arguably the most powerful lobby in the country, Netanyahu reiterated that construction activity in any part of Jerusalem was non-negotiable. Clinton, addressing the same meeting, wasn’t booed when she described the settlements as detrimental to the peace process but was applauded when she dwelt on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s nuclear arsenal remains unmentionable, of course.
US negotiator George Mitchell, the supposed conduit for proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians, is back in the Middle East, but chances of progress remain negligible despite the pliability of the Palestinian Authority under Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. Nor are UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s protestations, on a visit to Gaza, that the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the enclave is responsible for “unacceptable suffering” likely to precipitate any meaningful change.
The prospects of a two-state solution recede with each bout of construction activity in the settlements on occupied territory. Its increasing unfeasibility has prompted increased consideration of a one-state solution: a democratic entity formed on the basis of equal rights for Jews and Arabs. This ideal would require some sort of a miracle in the biblical lands. The likeliest alternative is indefinite extension of the unpalatable status quo. The US can change the game, but recent events have illustrated that, despite a somewhat less cockeyed outlook, the requisite political will remains conspicuously absent.