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U.S. Can Put the Squeeze on Israel

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Israel can do whatever it damn pleases, and the Obama administration will never say no -- or so the common wisdom goes. But it ain't so. Obama has backed down far too often, but there's also a long history of Israel giving in to U.S. pressure in the last 18 months. Here are just some of the highlights:

On June 4, 2009, Obama went to Cairo and called on the Israelis to agree to an independent Palestinian state. That same day Netanyahu met with his cabinet. "Ministers split over Obama's Cairo speech," one Israeli headline declared.

Just ten days later, Netanyahu spoke words that he'd never said publicly before: "Two states for two people." Had Obama not made his own speech, it's doubtful anyone would ever have heard those words from Netanyahu.

Later that summer, "a senior source in Jerusalem" told an Israeli reporter that American envoy George Mitchell had asked Netanyahu to promise a one-year freeze on settlement construction. "Netanyahu and Barak did not reject the request"; they merely "disagreed over some of the details." The Israelis agreed to ten months, which "came about as a result of extensive bilateral discussions" between Israel and the U.S., according to the Washington Post.

By the end of the summer of '09, Netanyahu and Barak had stopped authorizing public money for any new settlement construction in the West Bank. Ha'aretz headlined that the ballyhooed "'New' settlement projects aren't really new." Most were bureaucratic re-approvals of projects already initiated.

Israeli political scientist Jonathan Rynhold explained that Netanyahu cut back construction because he did "not want to lose his credibility with the Americans," and he wanted U.S. backing for opposing Iran.

But on Iran, too, Israel was timid. A senior Israeli official said that Israel did not ask for U.S. permission to attack Iran because the Netanyahu government didn't want to risk being told "no," making it clear who holds the reins on that issue.

By late summer the Israelis had also stopped building the wall in the West Bank because "the Obama administration is trying to curb Israeli activity as a prelude to restarting peace talks," the Washington Post said.

In September '09 Obama forced Netanyahu to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York. Jonathan Freedland, writing in The Guardian, said "Obama deployed the one weapon no Israeli or Palestinian leader can resist: a direct invitation from the American president." "Obama's achievement was modest," as Freedland wrote, "but it was not nothing. In the end, both Netanyahu and Abbas had to bend to his will." Prominent Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea summed up a common view at the time: "Everyone depends on America, its money, its military aid, and its moves vis-à-vis Iran."

Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to oppose Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. The State Department summoned Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, twice for reprimands on the issue.

In the spring of 2010, right-wingers in the Israeli government challenged the U.S. on that point by authorizing a big Jewish building project in East Jerusalem, just when Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting Israel. Biden condemned it and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Netanyahu a long tongue-lashing. The New York Times reported that "a crucial American demand is that Israel neither promote nor permit 'provocative' acts... That would include new building projects."

Netanyahu then demanded from his own bureaucrats a list of all plans for large projects in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. For the next seven months, there was what The Independent called "an undeclared freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem... Netanyahu had restrained settlement building," with only a few exceptions.

No less a figure than Israel's President Peres bluntly explained why: "Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need." The popular Israeli columnist Eitan Haber wrote: "How many times this week did you hear and read that joke about the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes? Well, Obama sat down on us this week."

As Glenn Kessler wrote in the Washington Post, "in Israel... what is controversial is doing things that affect the relationship with the United States. And [for] that Netanyahu is facing a lot of criticism." Israeli commentator Shmuel Rosner noted that if Obama "signaled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu's domestic support would quickly evaporate."

Israelis now worry less about U.S. military support (which is always forthcoming) than U.S. diplomatic support for Israel's legitimacy; Israelis increasingly worry about "delegitimization" as the biggest danger they face. As if to signal that U.S. diplomatic support could not be taken for granted, Obama gave Netanyahu a rather rude welcome when he visited the White House a week later, bringing him in through a side door and denying him the customary photo ops.

In April the world learned that top U.S. military leaders were leaning on Obama to lean harder on Israel. And Obama seemed to be listening. When he told a press conference, "'It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts'... he effectively adopted the argument of Gen. David H. Petraeus, his Middle East commander, who recently warned that the region's troubles created a dangerous environment for American troops stationed in nearby Iraq and elsewhere in the area," the New York Times reported.

Perhaps with those words ringing in his ears, Netanyahu agreed in May to the so-called proximity talks with the Palestinians, rather than the direct face-to-face talks he kept saying he wanted. At about the same time, the U.S. gave the Israelis another shock by signing the final document the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference, even though it urged Israel to sign the treaty -- wording that the U.S. had always blocked in the past.

In early September 2010, the beginning of direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians saw a tragic but expected outbreak of violence on the West Bank, apparently with the aim of derailing the talks. What was unexpected was Netanyahu's tepid response: "I will not let the terrorists block our path to peace." That "sounded nothing like the Bibi of old" who would have broken off the talks, the prominent Israeli pundit Aluf Benn wrote. But Netanyahu, like other Israeli leaders before him, had "succumbed to American pressure."

The negotiations broke down when the ten-month moratorium on settlement expansion expired. A "senior political source" told Ha'aretz that the Obama administration was putting "heavy pressure" on Netanyahu, as well as making generous offers, to find a compromise so talks could continue. Netanyahu soon agreed to the two-month moratorium, with a condition that he surely thought the Palestinians would reject: recognition of Israel as "the state of the Jewish people." But they surprised him by giving clear hints that they might agree to that condition, if they got a map with definite borders in return.

To stave off compromise, Netanyahu broke the de facto moratorium on new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. But Yedioth Aharanoth confirmed that Netanyahu "was apparently forced to give up plans to market another 600 apartments [in East Jerusalem] after the US Administration made it clear that this would put an immediate end to peace talks with the Palestinians." "Construction of thousands of planned homes" including some 1,300 in Jerusalem, "are frozen in practice," the paper added.

As for the U.S. promise to let Israeli soldiers remain on Palestine's eastern edge, Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev soon said that Israel's insistence on it "could be reviewed over time." Apparently pressure from the White House succeeded on that point, too.

Though the U.S.-Israel relationship, like all tense diplomatic relationships, is bound to be a matter of give and take, when the U.S. truly insists on anything, Israel as the weaker partner is likely to yield. Obama's early insistence on a total freeze on settlement expansion, his many statements that angered the Israelis, and his administration's steady efforts to push the Israelis to compromise all suggest that the president and his advisers would like to do more -- if they felt politically safe. If "the question of how much the United States is offering, and what it is asking for in return, is being fiercely debated within the White House and the State Department," as the New York Times reported, that's due mainly to the domestic politics of the issue.

Soon the administration may face a new dilemma: How to respond to Palestinian moves to gain legitimacy as an independent nation in the U.N. and other international institutions. The administration's response, like every aspect of its Middle East policy, will not be decided by Israelis. It will be decided by Americans who shape the political climate here at home. The White House is full of weathermen, waiting to see which way the wind blows.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.