The wrong quarrel at the very worst time
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
If you were one of 7,500 delegates who attended the AIPAC policy conference this week, you arrived perhaps a bit uncertain as to how to interpret the consequences of the Obama-Netanyahu flap. Most of the sentiment seemed to suggest that the Obama administration overreacted to a “mistake.” After the dust cleared, it became apparent that there were bigger issues to worry about and America and Israel needed to get on with them.
In principle, this is correct. The fiasco that was the U.S.-Israel confrontation last week should never have happened. The sharp differences that emerged were not new and they are real, but they are by no means cataclysmic and the family feud is moving to a swift conclusion, as the scheduled meetings between Obama, Netanyahu, and Hillary Clinton this week seemed to augur.
Resolution of the spat will move ahead. The Mitchell proximity talks will proceed, though they are unlikely to lead to any type of breakthrough in a peace process or even a rapid resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The problem is how could this confrontation ever have occurred.
To begin with, both sides need to prioritize their mutual interests rather than be sidetracked by peripheral issues; even ones like settlements. Settlements, even in east Jerusalem, are not worth Israel creating a major kerfuffle with her only reliable friend in the entire world. Whether the Israelis consider the settlements issue to be a straw man created by the Arabs to avoid addressing the real issues, or whether the U.S. believes that a cessation in settlement construction indeed holds the key to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, neither approach addresses the truly existential issues.
On the positive side, it appears that the Obama administration sincerely recognizes the potential nuclear threat posed by Iran. Prior to the slighting of Vice President Biden, both Secretaries Clinton and Robert Gates had held separate meetings with the Saudis and other Sunni Arab states in the Gulf in an effort to establish an agreed-upon strategy toward Iran. The Saudis and their oil-producing allies had begun to express themselves to the U.S. an elevated sense of concern about Iran becoming a nuclear state.
These trips had been preceded by visits to Washington by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and a follow-up discussion on weapons systems at the Pentagon with Israeli Chief of Staff, Lt. General Gabi Ashkenazi. It began to look like a unified regional policy was evolving, orchestrated by the U.S. and involving the West, Israel, and the Sunni Arab states.
What was missing from the discussion were two important points. All nations have domestic needs and considerations. As President Obama began his final legislative push to achieve the key initiative for his presidency — health care — what he did not need was to be pulled into an unnecessary, distracting, avoidable foreign policy fight in the Middle East.
For the Israelis, it was as if some political leaders could not see the forest for the trees. Giving Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt that he was indeed blindsided by the actions of the Interior Ministry, the Israeli prime minister cannot tolerate maverick ministers promoting their own priorities in the face of critical bilateral discussions.
Fanning an unnecessary debate between the U.S. and Israel over settlements, just when a frustrated George Mitchell was finally able to achieve proximity talks with the Palestinians and the Israelis, was pointless, except in narrow, domestic terms. Coupled with the slowly emerging, unified Iranian policy made it all the more inexplicable.
Finally, for Israel’s friends in the Congress and in the Jewish community, this flap created a burden for pro-Israel advocates that was not only unnecessary but also pointless and ill-timed. Israel’s friends can go to the well for support just so often. Congressional support for Iranian sanctions legislation was riding high and the Obama administration appeared ready to make a major international push forward. To “gin-up” the troops — Israel’s friends and leaders — to ensure the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship at this time was a totally unnecessary fight, at a time that there were far more important issues to be engaged.
As Jews in Israel and the Diaspora sit down next week at their seders, they need to consider that the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea was hard, emotional, and traumatic. They do not need to make governing equally challenging.