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Time for US-Israeli Negotiations

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Time for US-Israeli Negotiations

Israel's government insulted Vice President Joe Biden as well as the United States on his visit there last week creating a media frenzy. Whether it was intentional or awkward timing, Israel's actions need to be recognized for what they are. While the United States and Israel enjoy a special relationship, the two countries interests have never been identical and have been diverging more and more in recent years.

Israel's government has been taking actions for many years that clearly demonstrate the fundamental differences with the United States. Israel has no intention of relinquishing any part of Jerusalem. Continuous building of Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, strict and unreasonable rules regarding Palestinian residence in the city are evidence enough of Israel's ultimate intentions to create facts on the ground which make sharing Jerusalem impossible.

The United States has observed Israel's actions in Jerusalem and tacitly accepted its policies for more than forty years. No one in Washington should feign surprise, astonishment or disbelief that Israel is rapidly populating what is left of East Jerusalem. That the latest housing plan for Jerusalem was announced during the Vice President's visit was unfortunate, but only a blip in a long history of Israeli policy to maintain sovereignty over all of Jerusalem.

President Barack Obama has said and his administration has reiterated that Arab-Israeli peace including a negotiated solution for Jerusalem are American interests. If that is the case, the United States is obliged to inform Israel in the clearest terms that this shift in US policy cannot, and perhaps, will not, accommodate Israeli actions which are counter to US interests. American interests in the Middle East are wide ranging and vital to international security. Israel's security may be at the top of the list, but they are not an exclusive US interest, nor does the US commitment to Israel preclude or contradict other US interests in the region. On the contrary, an American policy that protects US interests in the region IS also an Israeli interest which will contribute to Israel's security and well being.

The United States is Israel's most important relationship by far. Yet, Israeli governments continually challenge the United States without consequence. Some of these challenges are real differences in policy, others are simply testing America's will. Israel's perception of its interests and security are always a factor to be considered in Washington policy making which is a part of the special relationship. The reverse has, obviously, not always been true for years. Israel often does not seem to take into consideration American interests in its policy making. Areas where differences exist include Jerusalem, settlements in the West Bank, wars in Gaza and Lebanon, rejecting what Israel and the Palestinians have already negotiated and the necessity of giving up territories including the West Bank and East Jerusalem for permanent peace to preserve the democratic Jewish state.

Iran, a major problem and potential threat, is another arena where Israel often takes the lead threatening actions that defy current US policy. An international strategic threat with vast geopolitical consequences like Iran is exactly when the US-Israel special relationship best serves Israel's security interests. While Israel's fears regarding Iran's stated threats are understandable as well as unacceptable, it is, nevertheless, in Israel's interest not to defy and challenge the United States, but to seek a common policy with strong guarantees which will protect Israel's security and American interests. Iran is a complicated international issue which Israel simply cannot resolve on its own, even with a military strike that is likely to draw the United States into the fight. Any military action in the region will have consequences in the region and the world which may be more threatening to Israel, the United States and international security than any direct threat Iran poses.

Apparently, successive US administrations have either not understood or preferred to deny that settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank are not only a symbol of Israel's intentions, but they are evidence that most Israeli governments, despite their occasional proclamations to the contrary, are not ready to relinquish any part of Jerusalem or even the West Bank. This is a fact that the US needs to discuss with Israel at the highest levels. It is not an issue that can or even should be resolved in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, Syria or Lebanon.

The Arab-Israeli conflict is about land, a real estate problem with historic, religious, ethnic and geopolitical consequences. Israel's settlement of the disputed territories may have already precluded establishing a Palestinian state coexisting in peace with Israel. To test whether there is still a slim chance of a two state solution, only Washington can determine, once and for all, if Israel will give up territory for an end to conflict. Israeli government statements, even some negotiated documents, are not enough any more. What is needed is a clear, public, unbreakable understanding between the United States and Israel that peace requires giving up territory including parts of Jerusalem. Once such an understanding exists, the US must insist that Israel takes no actions which contradict such an outcome.

If the United States cannot solicit such an understanding with Israel, a sovereign country, Washington will need to advise Israel of the consequences of its position. Without territory, there is no peace. Israel can expect that sooner or later Palestinians under Israeli control will demand citizenship, a notion that is not new to the Israelis. How will Israel be able to handle a demand by millions of Palestinians for citizenship? Such an outcome would be the end of the Jewish state, of course, as the Palestinians will soon outnumber Israelis. There is no Israeli government that can or should agree to such a demand. If the Palestinians are deprived of a state as well as citizenship in the state that controls them, Israel will be left with only a single choice, to continue to militarily control the Palestinians which will further isolate Israel, impact the special relationship with the US and deprive Israel, perhaps permanently, of ending the conflict and establishing normal relations with all of its neighbors.

The US cannot force Israel to give up territories. In such a case, the US will have to go public explaining the differences between Washington and Jerusalem, suspend any effort to negotiate a solution and continue to pursue policies in the region to protect all other American interests. With Americans in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of extremism, the lack of civil society, democratization and economic development in the region at a time of a demographic explosion in the Arab world, the United States has a full agenda in the Middle East and South Asia which are now inextricably linked.

Israel can and should be left to its own devices while the United States pursues other American interests. These two long time strategic allies will simply have to live with their differences. When and if Israel decides that ending the conflict is worth relinquishing territories and takes actions to demonstrate its commitment, then the United States, the international community and the Arab countries should be prepared to fully embrace Israel to cooperate on establishing a permanent peace between Israel and its neighbors, and all the Arab countries as soon as possible.

For the United States, it is far too costly to continue to pretend that negotiations between Israel and its neighbors are possible without a commitment backed by actions that Israel, will indeed, loosen its grip on the territories in preparation for relinquishing them in a permanent peace agreement.

The special relationship with Israel will endure, but without clear understandings it could erode exacerbating Israel's fears and insecurity which serves no ones interests. For now, the time has come for the Israelis to consider their options to preserve their relationship with the US which needs to know without a shadow of a doubt whether or not Israel is committed to giving up territory for peace.

Judith Kipper
Director, Middle East Programs
Institute of World Affairs
Washington, DC.