Thursday, October 6, 2011


In recent weeks, following on the heels of the US's dismissal of the Palestinian Authority's U.N. bid for statehood, there has been growing chatter in American discourse on taking a harder line towards Israel.

Skeptics still have ample ammunition to fuel their concern that no amount of tough talk will actually translate into policy. For them, even a subtle shift in American elite opinion is a long-awaited admission of reality. But criticism has been made in the past by all levels of government and in the public sphere, with action remaining elusive.

To boot, the importance of current American electoral dynamics; staunch US domestic support of Israel; and Israeli intransigence cast doubt on Obama's desire (and ability) to summon the courage and creativity to break new ground.

Whatever the interpretation, a spate of very public remarks should not be dismissed insofar as they take direct aim at Israel's current policy and the US's complicity therein.

From the Democratic politics to the mainstream press and a left-leaning think tank, here is a rundown of some of the most visible commentary:

1. The day after President Obama's Sept 21 speech before the U.N. on Palestinian statehood, Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation wrote a vivid, worthwhile piece equating Obama to segregationist whites of the civil rights era in telling Palestinians essentially to "stay in the back of the bus." He then compares the Palestinian initiative to Gandhi's embarrassment of Britain, to Israel's own path to achieving statehood, and to the hypothetical refusal to recognize Kosovo until it resolved all of its issues with Russia. In expressing his disappointment in Obama - who could have ranked among Gandhi, Mandela, or Martin Luther King -, Clemons calls the president's position "dangerous" and one amounting to the USSR losing a war of wills against Cuba at the height of its Cold War power. Lacking will and conviction, Obama risks solidifying his image as a subordinate to Netanyahu.

2. On the same day, Sept 22, former president Bill Clinton - during a panel on the Middle East during his Clinton Global Initiative in New York - blamed Netanyahu for the failure of the peace process; saying that even after receiving all requested security and other assurances, the Netanyahu government has moved further away from the consensus to move toward peace. Clinton evokes another theme, which will be repeated later by others - the demographic shift which makes the Israeli population both less amenable to peace and more in need of it.

3. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, during travels to Israel (Oct 3), warned that Israel is increasingly isolated and must seek to renew relations with Turkey and Egypt, asking "Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you're isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength." Highlighting the reality of dramatic shifts in the Middle East, Panetta called on Israel to make a broad effort to formalize channels of cooperation with its neighbors, lest problems be constantly taken "to the street."

4. Finally, writing in the New York Times (Oct 5), Nicholas Kristof asks and answers the question, Is Israel its own worst enemy?, saying that "Netanyahu is isolating his country" with a policy on settlements akin to "a national suicide policy." Kristof criticizes the US administration for wasting global good will by categorically refusing to support Palestine's bid for statehood, the Israeli government for its insulting response to Obama's pro-Israel speech (authorizing the construction of new settlements), and the unnecessary unraveling of relations with Turkey at the hands of Netanyahu's government. Denouncing Israel's occupation and urging it to apply democratic principles to all - including giving Palestinians the vote in Israeli elections in the territory it occupies, Kristof concludes: "Today, Israel’s leaders sometimes seem to be that country’s worst enemies, and it’s an act of friendship to point that out."

- Obama Tells Palestinians to Stay in the Back of the Bus (Atlantic)
- Bill Clinton: Netanyahu Killed the Peace Process (FP)
- Panetta Warns Israel Getting More Isolated (ABC)
- Is Israel Its Own Worst Enemy? (NYT)

- Amy Greene