The Procedural Relationship

Media attention concerning US-Israeli relations has been feverish recently. It is commonly assumed that the friction indicates cracks in the “special relationship,” precipitated by ill feelings between the Obama administration and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. There very well may be ill feelings — the Americans in general have never loved Netanyahu — but they are more or less beside the point; what we are seeing is overdramatized and business as usual.

The discourse between the United States and Israel since the two leaders took office in early 2009 has revolved around settlement construction in the occupied territories and East Jerusalem, and the two-state solution — that is two states, Israel and Palestine. The White House has been emphatic on both points; Obama and company (namely, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have repeatedly stated their desire to see a Palestinian state, and have time and again voiced dismay over settlement expansion. Netanyahu has begrudgingly spoken of a two-state solution, but settlements have been an Israeli policy pastime for over 60 years. Construction continues, as does White House condemnation. The beat goes on, as it has now for a string of American administrations.

During Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel this past March, the country’s Interior Ministry announced plans to develop 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem. A case of bad timing. But was the bad timing apropos the VP’s visit? Perhaps up to a point. It seems more plausible the bad timing here had less to do with Biden and his having been diplomatically “embarrassed,” and more with the possible agenda on the part of the administration.

For Israel’s indiscretion, it was roundly reprimanded.[1] The severity is noteworthy. Israel has, on countless occasions over the decades, perturbed its American sponsor, for which it generally receives a mild groan from Pennsylvania Avenue. But when Tel Aviv gets dressed down like it did in March, one suspects the White House wants something, and wants it in a serious way.

What the president seeks we can only speculate.[2] Much attention has been paid recently to the region-wide strategic concerns voiced by the American military establishment. A now-oft-cited piece that appeared in the Foreign Policy journal, discussing a team sent to the Pentagon by US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General David Petraeus to brief the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported the essence of the apprehension. Yet, the key passage in the article is not very convincing:

The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that [George] Mitchell himself was … “too old, too slow … and too late.”[3]

On the face of it, the drift of the briefing is rational. But it is rational only if we adhere to the orthodox assumptions about US foreign relations: noble intentions, democracy promotion, and national security. (That the US-Israeli alliance endangers our troops is accurate, apart from the fact that the troops being in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place welcomes far greater danger to their lives, and those who brought these engagements into existence were clearly able to surmount any moral palpitations.) As a result, the main points in the passage don’t pass muster historically and are likely wide of the Executive’s interests (frequently different than the military’s, usually different than ours).

Firstly, Arab perceptions have never been much of a priority in Washington. The leaders of the principal Arab states — Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan — are all US clients and do what they are told — which is basically to support American interests in the region and maintain order among their own populations. Arab leaders will voice complaints if the heat gets turned up too high on them internally, because of ill treatment of the Palestinians, but the settlement announcement during Biden’s trip doesn’t seem severe enough to raise the temperature to that level. Cumulative Arab resentment over time, as opposed to a singular event, is another matter.[4]

Secondly, an able diplomat, Mitchell’s only impediment is the White House’s hitherto unwillingness to give his good offices the support they need; the problem has not been his performance. Which brings us to the third main point of the Pentagon meeting.

Intransigence is part of Israel’s job description; it is part of its role fulfillment and is nearly expected of it by American planners. As Henry Kissinger, a leading policy architect in the 1970s, stated:

Israel’s obstinacy, maddening as it can be, serves the purposes of both our countries best. A subservient client would soon face an accumulation of ever-growing pressures. It would tempt Israel’s neighbors to escalate their demands. It would saddle us with the opprobrium for every deadlock.[5]

The United States can effortlessly get Israel to cooperate, and possesses a number of levers and techniques it can employ (and has) to get Israel’s leadership to come around. But because Israel’s default behavior is militant, aggressive, and “obstinate,” it is required that the White House “stand up to” (jerk the leash of) Tel Aviv.

What the White House has on its mind in particular will presumably make itself known in due course. The point here is not to make predictions, but instead locate the news (always presented as new) in a larger context, as these developments are not occurring in a vacuum. It is worth bearing some basic history in mind.

1. Policymakers in Washington have in general aimed to preserve the status quo in the Middle East. Things are generally kept as they are unless a fire needs extinguishing (for instance, the 1973 Yom Kippur War), in which case “standstill” and “shuttle” diplomacy (looking busy) are used to effect minimal alteration. This general approach has been the essence of the peace process, and explains why it has always been heavy on process, not product.

2. In a related aspect of this tendency — present throughout much of its history, but starkly visible in the post-1945 era — the United States has endeavored to control and/or thwart independent self-determination in the Third World. This applies to the Palestinians. Moreover, the emergence of a legitimate state in the territories also factors into the first point above: Keeping the territories politically inert preserves the balance, whereas a Palestinian state would add an unpredictable element, and might give others funny ideas about independence — hence, the “domino theory.”

3. A level of tension in the region, especially where it concerns Israel, has brought the benefit of creating a source of leverage used to regulate Tel Aviv’s behavior. The tensions have increased Israeli wants from the United States, which in turn could be granted, delayed, or denied depending on the circumstances. This also provides pretext and justification for the United States remaining involved in the region, historically a matter of Cold War preoccupation, now a concern over terrorism and Islamic extremism — both persistently stated thorns in Washington’s side, yet both to a large extent the by-products of American interference. That these pressures accrue immense financial rewards to the domestic weapons industry is also a factor that should not be overlooked.

4. The Palestinians have been a low (if mostly non-) priority, and have generally only received US attention when the situations in the West Bank and Gaza were agitated to an extent beyond what planners in Washington felt was benign. Pronouncements and diplomacy supporting the Palestinians have also served immediate purposes, for example, allaying Arab indignation owing to popular sympathy in the region for the plight of the Palestinians. In other words, the occupied territories are a useful source for PR and propaganda.

If we summarize these four points, what we have as a backdrop to the recent reportage is maintenance of the regional state of affairs (tense but stable), restraint of national liberation, keeping Israel militant, and periodic Palestinian utility. In other words, the historical record does not signal promise. That said, the Obama White House might see reason to go the distance and start where former President Bill Clinton left off after Camp David II, with his post-summit “parameters.” A just resolution to the Palestine-Israel conflict, after all, is not elusive. On the contrary, all involved parties know well what it will look like: two states, based roughly on the 1967 Green Line, refugee return (to Palestine) and/or compensation, and East Jerusalem (or most of it) as the Palestinian capital.

It is possible that we might be surprised in the months or years to come. A just peace would benefit the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians, who have borne the greatest hardship in this conflict. Should the administration instead opt for continuity and the status quo, wrapped in the conventional rhetoric, incentive could always be provided by that other lobby: us.

GREGORY HARMS is an independent scholar focusing on American foreign relations and the Middle East. He is the author of The Palestine-Israel Conflict: A Basic Introduction (2nd ed., Pluto Press, 2008), and the forthcoming Straight Power Concepts in the Middle East: US Foreign Policy, Israel, and World History (Pluto Press, 2010).


[1] Glenn Kessler, “Clinton rebukes Israel over East Jerusalem plans, cites damage to bilateral ties,” Washington Post, March 13, 2010

[2] David Ignatius, “Obama weighs new peace plan for the Middle East, Washington Post, April 7, 2010.

[3] Mark Perry, “The Petraeus briefing: Biden’s embarrassment is not the whole story,” Foreign Policy, March 13, 2010.

[4] Turki al-Faisal, “Saudi patience is running out,” Financial Times, January 22, 2009.

[5] Quoted in Camille Mansour, Beyond Alliance: Israel and U.S. Foreign Policy, trans. James A. Cohen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 119; see Henry Kissinger, Years of Upheaval (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), 483-4.