Friday, September 24, 2010

The Obama - Israel "Crisis"

What comes to mind when you think about great moments of crisis in U.S. foreign policy? The Berlin blockade, the Cuban missile crisis, Iran's seizure of American hostages? Or, perhaps, Israel's decision to build residential housing in northeast Jerusalem?

Whether current tensions with Washington do constitute a crisis, and whether yesterday's crisis talks between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lead to a reduction or intensification of those tensions, will become apparent soon enough. But whatever the outcome, it is a fact that strains between Washington and Jerusalem have been part of the "special relationship" ever since President Harry S Truman granted Israel de-facto recognition in 1948.

Let us count the ways. After the 1956 Sinai campaign, the Eisenhower administration forced Israel to withdraw from captured territories despite Egypt's continued belligerency. The opening of Israel's Dimona nuclear facility in the early 1960s contributed to strife with the Kennedy administration. After the 1967 Six-Day War, a supportive Johnson administration nevertheless issued Washington's first condemnation of Israeli settlement activity.

The beat goes on. Much to Jerusalem's consternation, the Nixon administration set forth the Rogers Plan, which sought to force Israel back to the hard-to-defend 1949 armistice lines. At one fractious point, the Ford administration ordered a complete reassessment of U.S.-Israel relations. Jimmy Carter was continually at odds with Menachem Begin, blaming him for every setback in the Camp David peace talks with Anwar Sadat.

Relations were no less bumpy when Ronald Reagan sold advanced electronic-surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia; withheld weapons from Israel in punishment for its airstrike against Iraq's nuclear reactor and then again over the 1982 Lebanon war; demanded a settlement freeze; and granted diplomatic recognition to the PLO. Things hardly improved with the arrival of George H.W. Bush, whose administration refused loan guarantees for the absorption of Soviet Jewish refugees until Israel agreed to a settlement freeze. Secretary of State James Baker scornfully told Israeli leaders to telephone if and when they were interested in peace.

Bill Clinton's years, dominated by the fallout from the 1993 Oslo Accords, were similarly marked by relentless pressure on Netanyahu (in his first term) to be more forthcoming to Yasir Arafat. Finally, in 2003, over Ariel Sharon's protestations, George W. Bush proclaimed a "Road Map" toward a Palestinian state in the midst of horrific Palestinian violence.

In the light of this recitation, does today's crisis with the Obama administration take on a less worrisome aspect, as simply another stage in an ongoing but finally harmless pattern? Not necessarily. For one thing, as with similar episodes in the past, this one can strengthen the perennial expectation among Arab foes of Israel that Washington will, ultimately, force Jerusalem to capitulate to their maximalist demands. For another, should the current administration seize this opportunity to attempt to impose its own "peace plan," that could indeed precipitate a real, genuine crisis.

-- March 2010

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