The Obama administration appears to be spoiling for a fight with Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, perhaps seeking to remind the world that she still exists, adopted a particularly combatative tone, after a meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit last week: "He [the Presdident] wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not 'natural growth' exceptions. . . . That is what we have communicated very clearly."
The tone, it should be noted, was considerably angrier than anyone in the administration could muster over North Korea's underground testing of a nuclear device or Iran's test firing of a longer-range ballistic missile.
The lead story in Sunday's Jerusalem Post speculated that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is waiting for the United States's confrontative tone with Israel to bring down the Netanyahu government. It would not, after all, be the first time that the United States has intervened directly in Israeli electoral politics to secure a government that it hoped would be more malleable to American wishes.
President Clinton dispatched some of his top political advisors, including pollster Stan Greenberg and James Carville to Israel in 1999, to aide Labor Party candidate Ehud Barak. The result was the election of a leader whom columnist George Will once labeled the worst ever visited upon any democracy. Barak's tenure in office ended with the failure of Camp David and the beginning of more than two years of open warfare with the Palestinians. He suffered the largest defeat in Israel's history in the next elections.
Nor does is Abbas the only one who has set his or her hopes on the fall of the Netanyahu government over conflicts with the United States. Kadima leader Tzippy Livni campaigned in the last elections on the platform that she would be better able to get along with President Obama than would Netanyahu, who was said to be widely distrusted by the Americans.
NOTHING COULD BE WORSE, HOWEVER, FOR ISRAEL than to allow its leaders to be chosen for their readiness to accede to American dictats. The job of Israel's prime minister is to advance Israel's interests and to protect its citizens. Provoking needless confrontations or unnecessarily dissing the president of the United States would not be consistent with that job description.
But neither would kowtowing to every American demand. And that is particularly so if, as appears to be the case, the Obama administration's thinking is dominated by the "realist" assumption that the United States-Israel alliance is a strategic liability for the United States and that the way to the hearts of Mideastern potentates is by downgrading the "special" American-Israeli relationship and aggressively pressuring Israel.
(While Arab regimes may indeed feel put out by the success in every area of upstart Israel, despite the fact that it enjoys none of their vast natural resources, it is but one of the "realists" many follies to attribute to Arab leaders any great sympathy for the Palestinians. The pitiable levels of Arab aid to the Palestinians compared to the vastly greater sums lavished upon them by the West are but one indication of the contempt in which the Palestinians are held. The refusal of most Arab regimes, other than Jordan, to offer citizenship to Palestinians is another.)
Of late, America has taken to hectoring Israel in a language of demands that it employs with no other nation. Secretary of State Clinton's recent harangue is but one example. When the Bush administration was pushing a democracy agenda for the Middle East, Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak did not hesitate to reject the initiative and even stick a finger in America's eye by arresting prominent pro-democracy critics of his regime. Yet, Egypt was never threatened with the withdrawal or reduction of its more than two billion dollars of annual American aid. Indeed that aid has seldom been used by the United States government as leverage for a more compliant Egyptian policy.
But with respect to Israel, the approach is very different. Let Prime Minister Netanyahu refuse to accept an absolute halt to all growth of every population center beyond the 1949 armistice lines, and the next day's New York Times will be filled with articles detailing the punitive actions being contemplated by the Obama administration, most of them no doubt leaked by senior administration officials.
AT THIS POINT, nothing is more crucial than for Israel to remind the United States politely but firmly that it is a sovereign nation, and as such it cannot and will not subcontract assessment of its security needs to outside parties, not even the United States.
And it would be well for the United States to remember that the Netanyahu government is not some freak occurrence that it can will away by shows of anger. The current Israeli government reflects the Israeli consensus on security issues. That consensus rejects any initiative that risks the West Bank becoming another Gaza Strip or Southern Lebanon, with its hand on Israel's neck at its most populous and narrowest point. Nor does that consensus share the view that every brick laid beyond the 1949 armistice lines – including homes for hundreds of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem – is illegitimate.
So far the Israeli security cabinet has been characterized by a remarkable degree of unity and has spoken with one voice. The wisdom of Netanyahu is leaving out of his government Tzippy Livni, who would have sought every opportunity to undermine the government from within, and bringing in Ehud Barak has been well-rewarded. Labor Party leader Barak perfectly echoed Netanyahu's rejection of an absolute freeze on all building beyond the 1949 armistice lines – a freeze that would include the large Torah strongholds of Beitar and Kiryat Sefer. The demand for such a freeze is totally inconsistent with President George Bush's recognition that many of the changes in the landscape over the last forty years cannot be reversed, and that Israel will not return to the 1949 armistice lines.
Successive American administrations have always shown abundant understanding of why Palestinian leaders cannot move too forcefully to stop terrorism against Israel, or end incitement, or even acknowledge Israel's Jewish identity.
Well, it is about time that the United States also show some understanding of the political constraints on Israeli governments. Netanyahu could not remain in office one week were he to agree to what the Obama administration is demanding of him.
Both Israelis and Americans need to remember that Israel is a sovereign state, and that it is therefore the responsibility of the former to elect Israel's leaders. Should Israelis ever forget this and choose their leaders based on American favor, Israel will have ceased to exist as a sovereign nation.