For years, whenever Israel committed some controversial action virtually every country would criticize it except one: the United States.
Well, those days seem to be over--and unless Israel adjusts soon, it could alienate itself from the one country that truly has its back.
In an extremely surprising move, the Obama administration heaped unprecedented criticism on the Israeli leadership last Tuesday for its newest settlement construction plans, even questioning its commitment to peace. I know, I couldn't quite believe that last bit either, but here it is (via a State Department spokeswoman):
"We are deeply disappointed that Israel insists on continuing this pattern of provocative action. These repeated announcements and plans of new construction run counter to the cause of peace. Israel's leaders continually say that they support a path towards a two-state solution, yet these actions only put that goal further at risk."
Ouch. The adjective "provocative" especially stands out, as it is usually reserved for the likes of North Korea and Iran.
Now, the U.S.-Israel relationship is an incredibly important one. We gain from it and Israel gains from it. I fully support Israel's right to exist (as any sane person does) and recognize that Israel has legitimate security interests which sometimes require controversial measures.
Yet I also think that criticizing Israel here was a good move, for it conduces towards peace by discouraging rash policies. Whenever Israeli war hawks engage in actions that endanger the peace process, they--facing a flood of international criticism--usually seek solace in the United States. Take that iron source of support away and the Israeli leadership is left with nothing and no one: The world is against them. They are but a small and isolated island adrift in a sea of malice.
The understandably strong fear of such a possibility discourages even the most hawkish Israeli leaders from further provocation. Israel will think twice before announcing another settlement plan. Why? Because even Likud recognizes that it cannot afford further isolation. Thus, a new United States that is not blindly supportive of Israel could expedite the too-long peace process by (1.) discouraging the Israeli right-wing from further provocative measures and (2.) upping its credibility among (very skeptical) Arabs. In the coming months we'll see whether the State Department's criticism of Israel was a fluke or if they've made the same sort of calculation I have. I'm hoping for the latter.
Whatever the case, with a re-elected President Obama who no longer has to obey AIPAC's every beck and call, don't be surprised if the U.S. is less warm towards Israel in the next four years than it was in the last four.