Latest U.S.-Israel Crisis Can Lead to a Breakthrough

It is often said that crises beget opportunities. This statement is nowhere truer than in the realm of U.S.-Israel relations.

Israel's approval of 1,600 new housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's recent visit has sparked the most significant crisis in U.S.-Israel relations in nearly 20 years. Some observers have suggested that the Netanyahu government's actions underscore a growing U.S. impotence with respect to the peace process. Yet if history is any guide, the present crisis might have left President Obama in a fairly strong position to advance peace.

In the mid-1970s, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger viewed Israeli inflexibility over a partial withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula as undermining his attempts to broker an Israeli-Egyptian agreement. His frustration with Israeli intransigence led the Ford administration to threaten, in March 1975, a reassessment of bilateral relations -- a move that increased tensions with the Israeli government and prompted public expressions of concern by scores of U.S. senators and advocacy organizations such as AIPAC. Yet President Ford's tough love, coupled with Kissinger's persistent diplomatic efforts, paid off six months later with the signing of the Sinai II agreements, in which Israel and Egypt pledged to resolve their conflict by peaceful rather than military means.

Another example of how crisis prompted progress is evident from the tenure of President Jimmy Carter, who butted heads frequently with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In the spring of 1978, relations between the two leaders reached a nadir when Begin and Carter openly clashed over the future of the West Bank and Gaza. Carter warned that "further settlement activity would be inconsistent with the effort to reach a peace settlement," while Begin defiantly rejected U.S. demands to halt settlements and show a willingness to withdraw from the occupied territories. Carter's relentless pursuit of Middle East peace, however, led to the Camp David talks in September of the same year, and those negotiations paved the way for the Egypt-Israel peace treaty of 1979. While Begin refused to budge on the West Bank, he ultimately agreed to withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula, which was enough for President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.

The last major crisis between the U.S. and Israel took place in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush withheld Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees to help resettle Soviet Jewish immigrants due to Israel's aggressive settlement activities. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's hard-line policies prompted an exasperated Secretary of State James Baker to declare: "When you're serious about peace, call us." The Bush administration's tough approach raised alarm bells among some segments of the Jewish community, but in Israel, the crisis played a key role in Shamir's 1992 electoral defeat. The lesson learned from this episode was that the Israeli public values highly Israel's relationship with the United States and is prepared to punish leaders who place it at risk. Indeed, the election of Yitzhak Rabin led to a historic breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Today, just as in previous crises, the Netanyahu government's obstinate stance threatens to undermine American peacemaking efforts between Israel and its neighbors. The Obama administration's sharp rebuke of Netanyahu, and its demands that all settlement construction in East Jerusalem be halted, have been denounced by hawkish elements in the American Jewish community. Rather than bowing to their pressure, however, President Obama would do well to embrace the calls of the increasingly vocal majority of American Jews, who are urging the President to step up his involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, including by applying pressure, when necessary, on Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders.

After a largely disappointing first year for the administration's peace efforts in the Middle East, the latest U.S.-Israel crisis presents a unique opportunity to recalibrate American efforts for Arab-Israeli peace. Would an American decision to pressure Netanyahu lead to a change in Israeli policy? Israeli public opinion polls published in Friday's papers are encouraging: although a majority of Israelis do not support the American demand to stop building in Jerusalem until the end of the negotiations, an even greater majority view Obama favorably and think their prime minister has acted irresponsibly. Obama should therefore take a page from his predecessors, whose determined efforts to bring about Mideast peace - even at the cost of quarreling with a friend - may have exposed them to criticism but also led to significant breakthroughs in Mideast peace.