After years of blissful uneventfullness since the end of the Second Intifada, punctuated by a few weeks of intense warfare here and there, I've suddenly started paying attention to the news again. It started with a call from one of my rabbis, who is now living in a small community on a windswept hilltop in Samaria (the northern West Bank.) These communities are often called "Settler Outposts," but the term is a bit misleading, as it implies some sort of military fortress bristling with antennae, thermal imaging cameras, and all the toys from a spy thriller. In reality, these Outposts are composed of small ramshackle temporary shelters and leaky trailers built, like their wealthier Arab neighbors, without the benefit of legal permits.
"I know you like to keep up with the news, so you're aware of what's going on?" he asked me.
The new, nominally conservative Netanyahu administration, had slated twenty six such outposts for demolition.
"We need lots of tefillah (prayers) and help."
"Let me know what I can do, just say where and when."
These demolitions, which are now in progress, are the first such since 2005. They apparently did nothing to ingratiate Netanyahu with the new Obama administration. It was expected that the new administration would be markedly cooler toward Israel, but a sudden series of edicts emanating from the White House caught everyone off-guard for their naked hostility, including:
1. Israel must sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would require Israel to disarm.
2. Israel is to take no military action to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
3. The U.S. understands Iran's, "energy concerns" (i.e. nuclear ambitions.) The United States will not make efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining weapons of mass destruction until Israel makes sufficient progress on destroying settlements. Meaning, America will do nothing about Iran.
4. In violation of previous commitments and signed treaties, Obama is now demanding Israel freeze all settlement activity everywhere, including in large cities abutting the 1949 armistice line which everyone agrees will become part of Israel.
5. In his meeting with Palestinian Authority President (and financier of the 1976 Munich Olympics Massacre) Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama indicated that the U.S. will no longer hold the Palestinian Authority responsible for upholding their commitments in previous signed agreements. These commitments include turning over known terrorists to Israel for trial, prevention terrorist attacks, and cessation of funding for acts of violence against Israeli civilians. The White House is only demanding a vague, unverifiable, "Commitment to end incitement."
6. The U.S. is beginning to enact restrictions on which weapons Israel will be allowed to purchase, holding up sales of weapons which might be used to thwart Iran's nuclear program.
While no consequences for non-compliance with American demands have yet been issued, the unspoken threats for refusal include:
1. Removal of American loan guarantees. Israel would have to borrow money for its national budget at a much higher rate of interest during a time of economic crisis.
2. Removal of American support in the United Nations. One in three United Nations resolutions is a condemnation of Israel for all sorts of outlandish accusations. These condemnations are typically authored by Arab states, embraced by the third world, sheepishly ratified by Europe, and finally vetoed by the United States. Removal of the American veto could result in a gradual erosion of Israel's diplomatic position and, in a worst-case scenario, the eventual imposition of sanctions.
3. Elimination of military aid.
Since all of these measures were enacted without discussion, or even a warning through diplomatic channels, it seems pretty clear that the Obama administration, for its own purposes, is actively trying to pick a fight with the Israeli government. Taken in context of his visible cooling of relations with other American allies like Britain and India, and his warming of relations with traditional adversaries like Syria, this seems to be part of a general American trend in the world of turning away from free democratic states and toward third-world dictatorships and Islamic Apartheid regimes.
This isn't the first time Israel has come into conflict with an American administration. In fact, Netanyahu's previous term in office in 1996 was marked by conflict with the Clinton administration. Clinton, perceived by Israelis as a great friend, partnered with the Israeli left and managed to have Netanyahu replaced with the more pliant Ehud Barak.
Obama has made similar overtures to the same Ehud Barak, today Defense Minister, bypassing protocol and just "popping in" to a meeting between Barak and white house officials yesterday. It was a clear signal to Israelis that there are more pliant leaders with whom he was willing to work after Netanyahu is overthrown. But Obama is not Clinton. Clinton took four years to prove his pro-Israel credentials before involving himself in the intricacies and intrigue of Israeli domestic politics. Barack Obama jumped right in and began issuing demands, and already has a reputation on the street as an Israel-hater.
Also, the Israel of 2009 is not the Israel of 1996. At that time, Israel still held Gaza, the "West Bank," and Southern Lebanon. The Palestinian Authority still claimed, at least in English, to have no ambitions beyond a state of its own. But after withdrawing from Lebanon and Gaza, both became launching grounds for kidnapping raids, terrorist atrocities, and rocket bombardments of Israeli civilians. As distasteful as Ehud Barak may find the settlers, it's blindingly obvious that, should Israel withdraw from the "West Bank," his own supporters' homes in Tel Aviv, just four or five kilometers to the east, will come under rocket attack. Israeli leaders may still mouth the words "West Bank Withdrawal," but most seem to understand on some level the lethal threat a State of Palestine would cause for Israel.
The real threat is one of Arab perception. Since the Arab conquest and colonization of the holy land in the year 639 CE (AD), the Jews were always a docile minority accepting of second-class status. The Arab street of today views Jewish haughtiness at demanding freedom from their rule as a direct result of American military and diplomatic support. If they view this sudden rift in the American-Israeli relationship as serious, they may smell a moment of weakness and be tempted to attack.
In the long run, Obama will probably be forced to reduce his expectations. Every American administration takes office with a surge of energy, convinced that the previous guy had it all wrong. Reagan came in with a similar list of demands, although not nearly as threatening. Within a few years, after gaining real-life experience seeing American diplomats tortured and servicemen killed by Arafat and the like, he realized with whom he was dealing and scaled back his expectations.
A temporary reduction in Israel-American ties is no need for fear. It may, in fact, be beneficial to break Israel's psychological dependence on American support in an increasingly multi-polar world. India and China, both rising powers, have higher public approval ratings of Israel than the United States. Most of Israel's great accomplishments, from the building of a state, to Independence, to repulsion of repeated Arab invasions, to the immigration of millions of refugees, all happened before the American-Israeli alliance was cemented under Nixon, and often with vehement American opposition. Still, it's a shame to see the world's greatest democracy, and Israel's greatest friend for the last thirty years and more, turn a cold shoulder to its former friends.
At least the news is now more interesting than the sitcoms.