Amid the ensuing health care debate, which appears to have gripped the American political scene for the time being, it seems that little attention is being paid to the Middle East, an area that consumed the national debate only a few short years ago. With the Obama administration poised to put “success” checkmark next to Iraq (and claim all the credit for such success as well), the mainstream media seems more focused on domestic issues. After all, it wouldn’t be very favorable to the administration if such focus was placed on the relationship between the U.S. and Israel at a time when it is at its lowest point in decades.
Following the very pro-Israel administration of George W. Bush, relations with America’s closest ally in the Middle East seemed to have chilled within the past 14 months. The most recent example came last week when, during a visit from Vice President Joe Biden, Israeli officials unexpectedly announced plans to expand their settlement, by increasing the number of housing units in an East Jerusalem neighborhood, a move opposed by the neighboring Palestinians and U.S. officials.
It remains to be seen whether the announcement of these plans at this time was a mere bureaucratic mishap or a political calculation. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed regret that the announcement of the settlement came during the Vice President’s visit, but gave no indication that he would reverse such settlement plans.
In addition to further stalling peace efforts between Israel and Palestine, the move also comes as a blow to Israel’s relations with the United States. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Israel’s sudden announcement during the Vice President’s visit, calling it an “insult to the United States.” Netanyahu has since tried to calm the tensions exerted by last week’s announcement, but this dispute seems to further demonstrate the deteriorating relations between the two democratic nations.
Netanyahu’s conservative Israeli government is primarily concerned with protecting its nation and its interests, while the goal of Obama’s more liberal American government, with regard to Israel, is renewing its peace efforts with Palestine and the surrounding Arab world. This recent clash also comes at a time when Netanyahu is viewed as being politically vulnerable in his own country. For this reason, the settlement announcement might have been a tactic for the Prime Minister to exert Israel’s independence from U.S. foreign policy.
President Obama would like the Prime Minister to admit concessions to Palestine and the other surrounding Arab states in order to cool tensions that were inflamed by the announcement for expansion. However, at this time, it does not seem likely that Netanyahu will budge.
While it is certainly in America’s interest for Israel to reach a peace settlement with its neighboring Arab states and nations, the Prime Minister has the duty to his nation, above all else, to protect its citizens and its interests. This is the same duty President Obama has to the United States and any other leader of a democratic nation has to his or her citizenry. President Bush understood the threat Israel faced, being in geographic approximation to hostile nations that have publicly called for its annihilation. President Obama, in turn, seems to constantly parent the embattled nation, lecturing it, from the comfort the White House, on how to best achieve peace with its neighbors. One thing (among many) that Obama fails to comprehend, or chooses to disregard, is this constant threat that Israel faces on a daily basis and, as a result of such a looming threat, the nation has to exert its authority whenever it possibly can. This does not necessarily mean it has to lodge attacks at its hostile neighbors, but, on the contrary, avoid the use of such force by demonstrating its might.
While it is unfortunate that Vice President Biden and U.S. officials were not informed of the announcement of settlement plans in East Jerusalem last week, the Israeli government does not deserve to be scolded or excoriated by the American government, as it seems to have been in the past few days.
Stability in the Middle East depends on a stable Israeli government. While Netanyahu may only be a political figure who will replaced by an election, he is nonetheless the current face of Israel and, like the President, responsible for selecting the best course of action for his country during these perilous times. It would certainly help matters for everyone if the American government would alter its current attitude toward the Israeli government, so that this nation, which has been a close U.S. ally for more than six decades, will once again realize that it has a strong and supportive friend and partner in the west.