The U.S. ‘condemnation’ of Israel: Facts and perspective needed

Lanny Davis Former Special Counsel to President Bill Clinton
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Full disclosure: I support a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians — consistent with Israel’s security. But even I, a strong supporter of the peace process, was shocked when I heard my own government “condemn” Israel and “summon” its ambassador to the State Department shortly before the Sabbath last Friday night to be read a harsh “démarche” (letter of condemnation) by the department’s second-highest official. And if that isn’t enough, the statements were immediately leaked to the press, indicating that the U.S.-Israel “relationship” was “at risk.”

“At risk”? The U.S.-Israel “relationship”??

“Condemn” is a word that has been used regarding North Korea, the Soviet Union and other evil, murderous dictatorships. Japan was “summoned” to the State Department after Pearl Harbor.

How could the U.S. government use such language about a democracy that has been America’s most loyal ally in the world on virtually all issues, a nation that shares our core values — protecting civil rights, women’s rights, due process and free speech — not only for Israeli citizens, but for over 1 million Israeli Arabs as well?

So what caused all this? Well, I learned President Barack Obama was “livid” and regarded it as a “personal insult” that the Israeli government had announced, at the time of Vice President Joe Biden’s visit, that 1,600 housing units had been approved to be built three years or more from now in the East Jerusalem Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

I could see why the president and the vice president would be very unhappy that this announcement was made just as Biden was visiting.

But let’s put the incident in perspective by considering a few completely undisputed facts:

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately publicly apologized to Biden, stating that the announcement decision was made without his knowledge or approval. No one has doubted his veracity on that point, and the vice president accepted his apology when he was in Israel.

The administration stated it was “insulted” not just by the timing of this announcement but by the “substance.” But what “substance” was violated? As The Washington Post reported, when the Israeli government agreed last November to a 10-month moratorium on settlement construction, that commitment “did not include the East Jerusalem area where the construction was announced to take place.” Ramat Shlomo has been an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood going back to the 19th century. Even President Bill Clinton kept these neighborhoods under Israeli jurisdiction as part of his 2000 Camp David proposals — with then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak remarkably accepting Palestinian jurisdiction over Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Most of these historically Jewish neighborhoods are within 2.5 miles of the 1967 line, and some only a few hundred meters from it, contain some 200,000 Israelis, over 40 percent of the Jewish population of Jerusalem. If anything over the 1967 line in Jerusalem is a problem, is Israel to be condemned for building in the Jewish quarter of the Old City? Repairing the Western Wall? That has never been U.S. policy.

Then there is the fact of the double standard. Why wasn’t the administration “insulted,” or so much as utter one critical word, when the Palestinians required U.S. Mid-East Special Envoy George Mitchell to agree to commute 30 minutes between the Palestinians in Ramallah and the Israelis in Jerusalem, all because the Palestinians refused the minimal civil act of talking to Israeli negotiators face to face?

It was reported that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton “relayed” the administration’s anger. But then, when she was asked directly by CNN reporter Jill Dougherty whether “the U.S.-Israeli relationship was at risk now because of this,” I was heartened by her answer: “Oh, it’s not at risk. I mean, our relationship is durable and strong. It’s rooted in common values.”

I hope, therefore, that the outburst of excessive language — language that should never be used about a friend or ally — was a momentary aberration. And whatever problems intermittently occur in the peace process, this administration should not lose sight of the big picture — first, that Israel remains a reliable military and economic resource for U.S. security interests, especially with Iran so close to developing a nuclear bomb; and second, that it is a historical fact that only when the U.S. shows steadfast support for Israel and its security — while still supporting a two-state solution — has there been progress toward peace.

This article also appeared as Mr. Davis’s regular weekly column in The Hill’s “Purple Nation.”

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America  (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).