The Obama administration has abandoned its feckless effort to induce Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to accept a 90-day settlement freeze designed to kick start peace negotiations — and save Israel from suicidal settlement expansion.
Any doubt that the settlements could be Israel's death warrant should have been eliminated by the recent fire that consumed northern Israel. The Minister of the Interior, an ultra-Orthodox 18th-century man - and 21st century political hack - named Eli Yishai chose funnelling resources to settlements rather than investing in firefighting equipment.
This is typical. The ultra-Orthodox settlers have little use for Israel itself. They really only care about Biblical Israel (which is mostly the West Bank). What's a fire in boring old pre-'67 Israel to a Bible-thumping fanatic like Yishai and his Shas Party? He's got Palestinians to drive out of their homes.
In any case, the Obama administration had offered Netanyahu an astonishing $3.5bn for a 90-day freeze in part of the West Bank (in addition to the annual $3.5bn aid package), plus the promise to use our veto in the UN Security Council on Israel's behalf. And most importantly, the US pledged to never ever ask Israel for another settlement freeze again.
But Netanyahu hemmed and hawed and then demanded that the US offer be put in writing (to make it legally enforceable?) and President Obama balked. Imagine if, in the run-up to World War II,Winston Churchill had told FDR that he'd accept Lend-Lease or the Destroyers for Bases deals, but only if Roosevelt sent him a signed and notarised offer. (Forgive me for putting Netanyahu in the same paragraph with Churchill.)
At long last, the Obama administration pulled the plug on the deal - although, the need for campaign donations could force a reversal soon. The reversal or, hopefully, a strong new comprehensive review of our Middle East policies, could come as early as Friday when Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, delivers an address on Israeli-Palestinian issues.
If Clinton delivers the speech she wants to deliver, it could offer a new comprehensive approach that is not dependent on pleasing Netanyahu. On the other hand, if the national security adviser for Middle East issues, Dennis Ross, a longtime veteran of AIPAC's Washington Institute for Near East Policy, prevails, it will be mush. Ross supports negotiations but solely on Israel's terms. Clinton has little use for Netanyahu, dating back to the days when he joined then-Speaker Newt Gingrich in his efforts to bring down President Bill Clinton. She can work with him but only under the old Reagan motto, "trust but verify."
Dennis Ross himself might do a decent job if he would only follow the example set by his one-time boss, James Baker, former secretary of state.
Back in 1992, the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir asked the George H.W. Bush administration for $10bn in loan guarantees to help house Jews who had emigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Israel needed the guarantees and Bush wanted to provide them, but he was more interested in achieving Arab-Israeli negotiations.
So Bush said yes to the money but only if Israel imposed a total settlement freeze. Not surprisingly, the Israeli government said no and, even less surprisingly, AIPAC convened an emergency fly-in to Washington so that its members could visit Congress and let senators and representatives know that putting conditions on aid was simply not acceptable to AIPAC.
Neither Bush nor Baker was intimidated. In a speech, Bush said:
And then he said that if the Israelis change their mind, they can just call him. "They have my number," he said.
Israel singled out?
One after another, AIPAC's congressional cutouts denounced him. But Baker shrugged them off.
Accused of singling out Israel, he said, "Nobody else is asking us for $10bn in addition to the $3bn to $4bn that we give every year with no strings attached."
The upshot was that the administration simply dug in its heels. Relations between the two governments deteriorated, the Israeli public became alarmed and, a few months later, tossed out Shamir and elected Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin accepted the settlement freeze and the loan guarantees went through.
The rest is history. The Bush/Baker term achieved the first significant Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, although the faltering economy led to Bush's defeat in the 1992 election. Rabin pursued peace with the Palestinians until his murder by a settler extremist. He was followed by a series of successors who played games with negotiations, primarily to extract aid from the United States.
Nonetheless, the most significant aspect of the Bush-Baker policies remains. Israelis and Palestinians no longer deny each other's existence. Negotiations take place and they could actually succeed if the United States followed Baker's example and linked aid to Israel to progress toward an agreement.
Yesterday, one of the most influential bloggers in the United States, Andrew Sullivan, until recently a strong supporter of Israeli policies (he was editor of Martin Peretz's New Republic), wrote this:
No matter. Sullivan is mostly right.
I do not favour eliminating aid. I do favour using it as a lever to achieve US policy goals, as we do with aid everywhere else. Why not? If you take money from your parents, they should have some say in what you do with it.
It is absurd that every item in the federal budget is under scrutiny except aid to Israel. The Commonwealth of Virginia could declare bankruptcy and shut its doors before Eric Cantor (R-VA) would allow himself to even contemplate reducing aid to Israel by a single dollar. But he's too easy a target: Anthony Weiner, Steny Hoyer, John Lewis, Jane Harman, Brad Sherman, Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer and countless others are no different. (Here is AIPAC's run-down of the new Congress, "the most pro-Israel ever").
Enough is enough. If Clinton wants to advance peace, she will ignore Dennis Ross and the congressional claque and put strings on aid. That would get us to a settlement freeze fast - and to final status negotiations, too.
If Israel is the sovereign country it claims to be, it will learn to exist in the world like everyone else. America should not be subsidising Israel's plush lifestyle (eight per cent annual growth) so long as it keeps telling us to drop dead.