The Tail That Wags the Dog

Just prior to leaving to meet with President Barack Obama this week, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet, "As far as we are concerned, building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel Aviv," and there would be no halting or restrictions of construction in East Jerusalem. The international community considers East Jerusalem occupied territory. Building on occupied land is illegal under international law, but Israel regards East Jerusalem – which it annexed in 1967 – as its territory. Vice President Joe Biden criticized the Israeli decision to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem: "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem." Although it’s highly unusual for the United States to criticize Israel, it’s also not likely that anything more will happen. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Obama administration would push back "unequivocally" when it disagreed with Israeli policies, but in the next breath she added that America’s support for Israel was "rock solid, unwavering, enduring, and forever."

Translation: Israel is the tail that wags the American dog. And that’s why the United States will never be able to broker a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even though that’s what the administration is hoping to accomplish with special envoy George Mitchell, who is supposed to mediate discussions between the Israelis and Palestinians. According to Mitchell, "Our shared goal … is the resumption of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians in an environment that can result in an agreement that ends the conflict and resolves all permanent-status issues."

The reality, however, is that the United States cannot be an honest broker in any mediation process between the Israelis and Palestinians. This is most apparent given the amount of unqualified financial aid the United States provides Israel. According to a December 2009 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report [.pdf]: "Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. foreign assistance since World War II. From 1976-2004, Israel was the largest annual recipient of U.S. foreign assistance, having been supplanted by Iraq. Since 1985, the United States has provided nearly $3 billion in grants annually to Israel." How much does all that add up to? According to CRS, more than $106 billion in aid to Israel from 1949 to 2009.

In contrast, according to a January 2010 CRS report [.pdf]: "Since the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, U.S. assistance to the Palestinians has been averaging about $400 million a year. During the 1990s, U.S. foreign aid to the Palestinians averaged approximately $75 million per year." For the period FY2004 to FY2010, U.S. bilateral assistance to the Palestinians totaled $2.4 billion – about what the U.S. gives to Israel in a single year. You do the math.

Moreover, many Palestinians (and Muslims more generally) believe the U.S. aid to Israel is underwriting the military equipment the Israelis use for military operations against the Palestinians (the bulk of U.S. foreign aid to Israeli is for military assistance), as well as financing construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, including Jerusalem. (Although a stipulation of U.S. aid to Israel is that the money cannot be used in the occupied territories, the reality is that money is fungible and U.S. aid, at a minimum, frees up Israeli money to be used in the occupied territories that would otherwise have to be used for domestic purposes without U.S. aid.) As a result, U.S. aid to Israel is viewed as causing harm to Palestinians. As such, the common Palestinian perception is that the United States will always favor Israel in any peace negotiations.

To make matters worse, U.S. aid to Israel is essentially unconditional (as Secretary of State Clinton made clear). So even when Israel engages in policies we disagree with, we do not leverage the more than $2 billion we give them as a way to change those policies more to our liking. Contrast that with how we treat a country like Iran. We don’t like Iran’s current nuclear policy, because we believe they may be trying to develop a nuclear weapon. So we pursue and urge the international community to impose harsh sanctions on the regime in Tehran.

The risk is not that the United States will not be able to negotiate a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. (As an aside, readers know that I love to cite Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results – yet that is exactly what we are doing. Every president since Lyndon Johnson has tried to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and every president has failed.) The risk is that the United States will be blamed if a peace settlement is not reached. And in being blamed we will set ourselves up to become a terrorist target of groups who do not currently attack America (Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad) and provide even easier recruiting fodder for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremists.

The conventional wisdom is that the United States must forge a peace between the Israelis and Palestinians to diminish the terrorist threat to America. The reality is that – especially since we cannot be an honest broker in the process – we place ourselves at greater peril by trying.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.