The US’ choreographed “outrage” at Israel
Stephen Maher

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC conference in Washington, DC, 22 March 2010. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP)

speeches at AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby group, on Monday by Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton and Netanyahu’s subsequent meeting with US President Barack
Obama are widely seen as drawing to a close what Israeli ambassador to
the US Michael Oren called the “most severe crisis in US-Israel
relations” in decades. This rapprochement comes on the heels of a
series of seemingly angry statements top members of the Obama
Administration released, after Israel announced construction of 1,600
new illegal housing units in occupied East Jerusalem while US Vice
President Joe Biden was in the country.

In fact, the basis for the Obama Administration’s criticisms of the
settlement announcement — as well as the significance of the crisis
itself — has been widely misconstrued by both supporters and critics of
Israel. AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) were “shocked and
stunned” that Biden and Clinton called the Israeli announcement
“insulting.” AIPAC urged the administration to “take immediate steps to
defuse the tension with the Jewish state” and “move away from public
demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel.” Meanwhile, the
ADL mused, “One can only wonder how far the US is prepared go in
distancing itself from Israel.”

Voices more critical of Israel, such as Richard Dreyfuss of The Nation,
suggested that “this is not just the reaction to an insulting
announcement during the visit of Vice President Biden,” but rather “the
Obama Administration is beginning to realize that Israeli intransigence
… is a major obstacle to US policy in the region.” Dreyfuss predicted
that this “might turn into the most significant confrontation between
the United States and Israel” since the 1956 Suez War.

Contrary to both of these positions, the Obama Administration merely
reacted to a diplomatic affront it was dealt by the Israeli government.
Israel’s announcement came on the same day that Biden had arrived in
the country to proudly confirm the US’ “absolute, total and
unvarnished” commitment to its ally, and commence indirect talks with
the Palestinians. Following the announcement, protests and violent
clashes broke out in Jerusalem and elsewhere throughout the Occupied
Palestinian Territories. Responding to this pressure, the Arab League
threatened to cancel its endorsement of the indirect negotiations, with
Secretary Amr Moussa even announcing that the Ramallah-based
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had decided not to
participate in the talks. As the endorsement was the only political
cover Abbas had to re-enter negotiations, the US administration took
careful notice of these events as pressure on Abbas to abandon talks
from within the territories mounted. With the Arab world outraged and
Biden humiliated due to the degree of US complicity that the timing of
the announcement revealed, the Obama Administration was forced to react.

Clinton said the timing of the announcement was “insulting,” while
top aide David Axelrod called it an “affront” that “seemed calculated”
to undermine the peace talks. The Obama Administration hopes that this
PR display will allow the US to fortify its farcical claim to be an
“honest broker” in the peace process, provide Abbas the political cover
to re-enter negotiations, and send a message to the Israeli government
that American leaders are to be treated with respect. As CNN reported,
Netanyahu has now set up a team to investigate why the settlement
construction announcement was made during Biden’s visit.

Netanyahu may well have been telling the truth when he claimed to be
“surprised” by the public criticisms by the US government. The day
before, one day after US envoy George Mitchell arrived to broker
newly-announced “proximity talks,” the State Department explicitly
approved Israel’s construction of 112 new apartments in an illegal
settlement outside Bethlehem. The assent came despite Netanyahu’s
declaration of a “moratorium” on settlement building, which he has
insisted cannot include such illegal construction in Israeli-occupied
East Jerusalem, a position the US has accepted.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has also chastised Israel for its
“provocative actions,” including record-high rates of stripping
Palestinians from Jerusalem their residency rights and infringements on
Palestinian religious sites that are clearly designed to incite a
Palestinian response or otherwise make it impossible for Abbas to
return to the negotiating table. Yet even when the administration was
at its most critical of Israel, following Obama’s speech in Cairo last
year, Israel was reassured that the actions taken by the US would be
“largely symbolic.” Indeed, Obama unconditionally re-authorized the
loan guarantees program and massive US aid — conservatively estimated
at $7 million per day — has continued without threat of reduction.

Obviously, the Obama Administration is hardly concerned about
Israeli violations of international law, previous agreements it has
signed, or the human rights of the Palestinians. The implication
throughout is that had the announcement come a week before Biden
visited (or even a day before, as the Bethlehem announcement did) there
would have been no problem. Indeed, just one week later, after the
Israeli government announced construction on an additional 426 East
Jerusalem settlement homes, Clinton “bolstered her support for the
Jewish state,” according to The Washington Post. The Israeli
army then opened fire on peaceful protestors in Gaza twice in two days,
and carried out air strikes on targets in Gaza, while Clinton issued
another statement saying that the steps offered by the Israeli
government to resolve the dispute were “useful and productive.”

The escalating repression continued Sunday, when the Israeli army
shot and killed four Palestinian youths in 24 hours in the West Bank,
two aged 18 and two 16. Simultaneously, Netanyahu issued a statement
proclaiming that Israel would never cease building illegally in East
Jerusalem as Ban Ki-moon arrived in Israel. Clearly, recent
condemnations of these projects as “illegal” by Ban and the European
Union did not stop Obama from welcoming Netanyahu to Washington on
Monday with a private meeting, nor Clinton from proudly sharing the
stage with him at the AIPAC conference to reaffirm the US commitment to
support Israel’s rejection of the international consensus for resolving
the conflict. Though she did say the settlements “undermine mutual
trust,” she did not acknowledge their illegality and mostly stressed
the threat that US support for them poses to its “credibility” as an
“honest broker,” thus urging Israel to refrain from such flagrantly
provocative behavior while reinforcing that the US-Israel relationship
is “rock solid.”

The US hopes that this pretended outrage will lend its role as
“honest broker” enough credibility to keep the “peace process” moving,
itself merely a PR facade that shields Israeli crimes from public
scrutiny. If it does not, the US will undoubtedly pay little mind to
the harsh words spoken this week and do as it has done before: blame
the Palestinians for its failure and support Israeli repression.

Stephen Maher is an MA candidate at American University School
of International Service who has lived in the West Bank, and is
currently writing his masters’ thesis, “The New Nakba: Oslo and the End
of Palestine,” on the Israel-Palestine conflict. His work has been
appeared in
Extra!, ZNet and other publications. His blog is

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