Sometimes it's easier to face down your adversaries than it is your allies when they challenge your national-security interests. The United States is now in the very difficult position of having to address an Israeli government determined to reduce American prestige in the region. Make no mistake, Israel's "slap" at Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the expansion of 1,600 new settlement units in occupied East Jerusalem (at the very time that he was visiting Israel to express America's uncompromised commitment to its security) fits into a pattern of behavior with right-wing Israeli governments that have sought to temper the diplomatic clout of the United States when the time for peace-making was at hand.
As former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and former Secretary of State James Baker have separately pointed out, this is not the first time a Likud-led Israeli government has challenged the United States. The fact that Likud governments keep trying is indicative that Washington still has the wrong system of incentives and disincentives in place to prompt a change in Israeli behavior. This has been dangerous to the United States in the past, but perhaps never so much as right now, when America is engaged in two wars in the Muslim world in Iraq and Afghanistan; involved in a critical battle against a terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, which continues to use Palestinian suffering as a recruiting tool; and stuck in a very tough stand-off with an Iranian government, whose biggest selling point in the Arab world is its support for Palestinians.
As General Petraeus noted before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "[t]he enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in [CENTCOM's area of responsibility]."
Indeed. Prime Minister Netanyahu's public reaffirmation of Israel's decision to continue with the settlement units even after a demand by Secretary of State Clinton that he put it on indefinite hold, and just one week before AIPAC's annual conference in Washington, D.C., has turned the issue into a clarifying one for the region and its two competing narratives. In one narrative, the United States is a spent force incapable of defending its own interests against Israeli intransigence, let alone able to defend the interests of the Arab populations. In the less popular counter-narrative, the United States is the strongest maintainer of stability in the region. Only through cooperation with the United States can the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians be achieved, resulting in a two-state solution.
But the United States has not yet lost this fight.
The United States can take steps on two tracks that could still advance its goal of securing an end of the occupation and a wider Israeli-Arab peace while reinforcing U.S. prestige in the Middle East, but it will have to act fast. The Obama administration should now move quickly on a plan to put final-status issues on the table and prepare a fallback position of an internationally supported Security Council resolution. On the second track, the United States should begin ending U.S. support for the occupation through actions that can be taken solely by the president and that are not dependent on Congress.
The United States should make sure that it does not repeat last year's mistake of engaging in months of negotiations with Israel over settlement expansion. The only matter for negotiation should have been final-status issues. The United States must not get suckered into negotiating any other matter with Israel, which would deplete American political capital on tactical instead of strategic issues.
So how does the United States respond to Israel's refusals? The president should begin to take steps to unilaterally end American government actions which promote the illegitimate or illegal behavior that we already oppose. American charities should not be allowed to send tax-deductible dollars to build settlements or to build in settlements. American companies must not be allowed to participate in the settlement enterprise. American military equipment must not be allowed to be used to entrench the occupation. And the American political cover at the UN for Israeli actions that violate U.S. national security should come to an end. The United States would not be taking a big leap in doing this; it would simply be joining the rest of the world and preparing the way for a quick resolution to the conflict. Best of all for Washington, these steps would enhance American leverage over all the parties while relying only on our own behavior.
This may end up being the defining foreign policy issue of the Obama presidency. Under no circumstances must President Obama allow America's adversaries (or allies) to define him or place limits on America's pursuit of its own national security.
Amjad Atallah is Director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and a co-editor of the Middle East Channel of Foreign Policy magazine at mideast.foreignpolicy.com.