10/12/2010 11:32 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whatever Happened to 'Just Say No'?


That's the best the US could do.

The Israeli government ends a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction -- it was in fact only a a partial freeze, but that's another story -- and immediately cement and bulldozers start spreading across the West Bank. Did anyone really expect better?

As I watched this depressing spectacle unfold, an interesting morality tale came to me that well summarizes the American response to Israel's open renewal of settlement expansion:

Imagine you're you're a professional athlete or movie star -- perhaps on the downside of your career, like Tom Cruise or Sylvester Stallone, but still powerful, with money and an entourage composed of friends and family from the old neighborhood. These friends aren't the nicest bunch of people, but they're generally reliable and willing to do your dirty work when asked.

Now imagine one of your best friends/employees has long had a drinking problem, with its attendant bouts of violence against his neighbors and whoever else might be in his way. Finally, he decides to sober up, declaring that he will not touch a drink for the next ten months in order to become a bit healthier and gain back some respectability within the crew, and stop putting you unnecessarily in the tabloids (okay, he doesn't really sober up, but he does cut down significantly, at least in front of you).

When he stops, however, he declares that this is just a short term self-help campaign, at the end of his drinking hiatus he intends to pour himself another drink and go back to his old ways, even though his constant drunkenness and fighting have gotten both of you into heaps of trouble.

The public and the media routinely question why you just don't cut him loose, but when they do you wax eloquently if incredulously about loyalty and the need to ensure his well-being and security. "He's got some issues," you declare, "But who doesn't?"

As the period of relative sobriety ends you try to talk to him about staying straight, changing his abusive ways towards his neighbors. But as soon as the day comes, he reaches for the nearest bottle of bourbon to pour himself a drink.

What are you supposed to do in this situation?

A. Hand him the bottle, have him pour you a drink, and toast to his good health.

B. Tell him you're disappointed in him but hand him the bottle anyway, and as a gesture of good faith, toss him the keys to your car to go get more when he's polished it off.

C. Tell him that as long as you're paying him, he better stay sober, otherwise you'll cut him loose -- as any real friend would do.

The correct answer is pretty obvious (unless, of course, you're also an addict, behaving increasingly the same way as he).

So how come Barack Obama, by all accounts a fairly sober fellow, can't see that "friends don't let friends drive drunk," never mind allow them to rob the corner liquor store over and over.

If you read the mainstream press in the US and countries many European countries, Israel comes off as the semi-reformed alcoholic determined to throw away months of sobriety to chase a dream that can only end in ruin. And the US, well, no one even thinks to question why the US is standing by frozen in place, acting as if it's powerless to stop its friend even though it's providing the money, and the alcohol, and the guns, that keep the addiction and criminality going.

And so when the Obama Administration decides it can do no better than stand by, ring its hands and express "disappointment" at the resumption of settlement expansion, its powerlessness is taken for granted, as if it were a simple fact of nature. Not a single piece of mainstream reporting or commentary has thought to challenge this ludicrous narrative of impotence with the actual fact that as Israel's most important benefactor, patron, and, in fact, dealer, the Obama Administration could quite simply "just say no." (The decision as I write these lines by the Israeli cabinet to approve a "loyalty oath" for new non-Jewish citizens is just the latest indication of what road such actions inevitably lead down.)

It could, and should declare that as a good friend and a party to the conflict whose very security is threatened by Israel's actions, which also threaten its nature as a Jewish and (semi-) democratic state, it will no longer enable them and will in fact suspend its support until Israel decides to sober up. If Obama can't convince Americans with such a strong case, he really shouldn't be President.

Sure, Democrats and Republicans in Congress, to say nothing of the right-wing media and religious forces, will cry bloody murder at the thought of threatening to cut off aid. But if ever the President has been presented with a simpler logical equation with which to justify a seemingly controversial policy it's hard to think of it.

Instead, in his recent UN address, President Obama declared that "responsibility begins with the parties themselves, who must answer the call of history," while explaining that while the nice words of Netanyahu and Abbas "must be followed by action, and I believe that both leaders have the courage to do so."

True, he added that "each of us has a responsibility to do our part as well" to bring peace. But when it was time to man up and assume that mantle, the US once again stood by and allowed its client to engage in precisely the activity that will render all its efforts to bring peace a waste of time.

Of course, the US is not the only party behaving hypocritically or cowardly in this situation. Most every other actor in this drama--aside from the Israeli government, which is merely doing precisely what it said it was going to do--has requited itself equally as poorly.

European leaders like French President Sarkozy and British Foreign Minister Hague have "deplored the decision to resume settlement construction" and declared how "very disappointed" they are at the decision. But neither is threatening any consequences for Israel's actions, so why should it stop? Eschewing the very idea of sanctioning Israel for defying international law and its' allies wishes, another unidentified diplomat declared that "the key is to put the negotiations back on their feet so that both parties are internally less vulnerable and to take settlements as an issue by itself out of the discussions."

Of course, no "top diplomat" (as the source was described in a New York Times) imagines that serious negotiations towards a final status agreement can succeed as long as Israel is ramping up settlement construction. So such off-the-record explanations are clearly intended to shift attention away from the obvious question of why no one who could get Israel to stop is bothering to do so.

Palestinian militants have expressed predictable outrage but little in the way of any positive alternative. Hamas leader Khaled Mishal demanded the PA stop negotiations, declaring that "To negotiate without a position of strength is absurd." But that is a throw away line at best, tossed out by someone with nothing better to say, since the implication, that there exists a possible position (presumably arrived at by violence) where Palestinians would be in a stronger position is what is really absurd. Hamas has done nothing in the last decade to shape a strong Palestinian position, and he surely knows that; in fact quite the opposite is the case.

As for the PA, chief negotiator Nabil Shaath explained his surprise that "America is unable to stop" settlements. But such surprise is feigned, at best. The US has never lifted a finger to stop settlements during the almost two-decade long Oslo era; nor for that matter, has the PA, which to this very day has continued negotiating despite the ongoing theft of land and building of settlements that any Palestinian old enough to speak would tell you would doom the chances for Palestinian sovereignty.

The reason, of course, is that the PA as an institution is entirely the creation of the peace process, and if it ends, so will the PA, which has allowed much of the Palestinian elite, including Mr. Shaath and Abass, to grow incredibly rich through the corruption and lack of accountability that was designed into the system to ensure that the Palestinian elite would be too invested in the process to stop it, no matter how far astray it goes.

Netanyahu, of course, is playing hardball, a negotiating tactic that Israel has employed successfully for decades. So who can blame him for continuing using it as long as it works?

The reality is that the longer he holds out, the more facts are created on the ground, the more territory will wind up remaining part of Israel in any final peace deal. And the more pressure will grow on Palestinian leaders to agree to a new "compromise," whereby Israel is allowed to continue building on settlements that they'd determined will remain part of Israel in a final peace deal, while calling the halt (at least broadly speaking) in construction everywhere else.

What few people understand is that Palestinians doomed themselves to precisely this scenario when, in one of the biggest negotiating blunders in diplomatic times, they allowed settlements, which have been declared by most every international authority illegal under international law, to become a legitimate object of negotiation in final status agreements as part of the architecture of the original Oslo accords.

A severely weakened, poorly staffed and already corrupt PLO had little ability to understood, never mind, challenge, this radical if little noticed change in the status of settlements. But in agreeing to this the path from September 1993 to September 2010 was charted.

In the end, everything has gone pretty much according to plan for Israel, with the US playing its assigned role splendidly (whether ultimately it is Israel that is playing the role the US has assigned to it is a subject worthy of another column). The only hope the Palestinians have is to change the script, to move away from a peace process system that from the start was rigged against them, and demand the establishment of a new political arrangement in the space of Israel/Palestine whereby Jews and Palestinians can live freely across the entire territory while retaining their own identities and political and social structures.

Until they do, one thing is for sure: The status quo will continue and everyone who can stop Israel will look away while offering empty platitudes about responsibility and courage that no one bothers to take seriously anymore.