In Addressing US-Israel Tension, a Chance to Advance Peace Process

The recent tension between the United States and the State of Israel provides both parties with an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to providing the kind of leadership needed to resolve their disagreements and work together to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The announcement of a plan to build 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this month demanded a response from the White House in order to maintain its credibility as a mediator in the region. Recognizing this, the White House approached its response to the episode as a strategic opportunity to generate much needed momentum heading into proximity talks. Last week’s advocacy conference and the subsequent meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu offered the Administration a chance to create such momentum in the context of trying to diffuse the recent tension with Israel.

In every action and statement since the announcement of the Ramat Shlomo construction, the Administration has made clear its commitment to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship, ensuring Israel’s security (particularly in addressing the threat from Iran), and achieving progress toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Firstly, Vice President Biden used his remarks at Tel Aviv University to describe the “unbreakable bond” between the U.S. and Israel as “impervious to any shifts in either country and either country’s partisan politics.” He went further to state that “every time progress is made (in the peace process), it’s made when the rest of the world knows there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security, none.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last week reinforced this message, going far beyond the perfunctory, amorphous support for the U.S.-Israel relationship that is typical of the annual Israel advocacy event. She echoed the Vice President, unequivocally stating that “there must be no gap between the United States and the State of Israel on security,” and calling for sanctions against Iran “that will bite.” At the same time, she stressed that “the dynamics of demography, ideology, and technology” make the status quo untenable, and was critical of both Israeli and Palestinian “unilateral statements and actions that undermine the process or prejudice the outcome of talks.”

Secondly, the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu sent two important and timely messages: that the United States is prepared to hold both parties accountable for their respective responsibilities, and that President Obama is personally committed to this issue—he is not about to give up anytime soon. That the meeting took place on the most significant day of President Obama’s presidency thus far, in which he signed health care legislation into law, underscores the effectiveness of his dedication and leadership.

Thirdly, the United States reportedly offered Israel a blueprint of suggested actions that, if taken, would both diminish any tension with the United States and significantly improve the atmosphere in the region in advance of proximity talks. Among the Administration’s requests purportedly include the postponement of any announcements of East Jerusalem building projects or progress toward development, easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip, releasing a significant number of Palestinian prisoners to President Mahmoud Abbas, and endorsing the discussion of all final status issues in the context of the proximity talks.

The American proposal offers Israel an opportunity to show that it too is committed to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and to advancing peace and security in the region. If taken, the Israeli gestures could also represent an important step forward—and potentially a significant turning point—in efforts to achieve a two-state solution.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Netanyahu came to Washington last week claiming that he was incapable of controlling East Jerusalem construction plans and that he was simply following the same policies as his predecessors. Yet President Shimon Peres recently refuted the Prime Minister’s argument, telling Ha’aretz newspaper last week that “previous governments built in Jewish neighborhoods, but not in Arab ones. Even Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir did not build in the heart of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. That’s why the entire world agreed to [building in Jewish areas], and it wasn’t a stumbling block in negotiations.”

Indeed, the approval of controversial housing units in the Shepherd Hotel site in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem offers yet another such stumbling block. Such developments fuel suspicions that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not willing to match his rhetoric at Bar Ilan University last summer in support of a two-state solution with the kind of leadership and concrete actions that would be necessary to achieve it.

The latest American proposal offers Prime Minister Netanyahu another opportunity to demonstrate such leadership and prove his skeptics wrong. When the Prime Minister takes these steps, the United States should stand ready to support him publicly and work to limit such public rifts in the future. Such measures would also serve to facilitate greater focus being placed on the responsibilities of the Palestinians to combat violence, cease incitement, and engage in negotiations. As Secretary Clinton stated in her remarks last week, Palestinians must meet their responsibilities in advancing dialogue as well.

President Obama’s demonstration of leadership and perseverance last week—whether it be on health care reform, the START treaty or the Mideast peace process—conveys that he is prepared to match his rhetoric with actions. Now it is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s turn to show he can do so as well—and the Palestinians must follow. In this respect, the recent U.S.-Israel tension could yet provide the context for much-needed leadership and movement in the peace process.

Peter A. Joseph is President of Israel Policy Forum. David Halperin is Assistant Director of Israel Policy Forum.