US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, pre-empted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) by warning of the consequences of continued settlement building on the interests of both the US and Jews. Netanyahu, however, remained implacably committed to Israel's 'right' to build settlements in Jerusalem. He told the conference that "the city of Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is the capital of the State of Israel" adding that his decision is but a continuation of historic Jewish construction begun three thousand years.
"All Israeli governments have implemented construction projects in Jerusalem, and everyone knows that the Jewish neighbourhoods established in the city after 1967 will be part of the State of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, the construction does not affect the possibility of achieving a two-state solution", said Netanyahu. The Israeli leader was clearly very selective in his choice of words and carefully avoided any indication of lenience towards the supposed irreversible American demands. So, will Netanyahu succeed in mobilizing in his favour the necessary support from the Jewish lobby in Washington and the wider American public?
Clinton's speech to the conference underlined the official US position on settlements, and the American administration's linkage between Israeli insistence on continuing settlement construction and threats to US interests abroad. Such language is unprecedented in American discourse, in public at least, and reflects a growing dissatisfaction with Israeli policy. Recent statements from high ranking US officials, including General Petraeus, commander of US forces in Iraq confirm that Israeli policy is coming to be seen as a cause of global hostility toward America and a threat to the lives of American soldiers abroad. Clinton also sought to block Netanyahu's dubious attempt to shift attention to the so-called Iranian threat saying that "Iran is not the only threat looming on the horizon".
While the speeches by Clinton and Netanyahu to the AIPAC conference reflected largely contradictory approaches, they nonetheless underscored the importance of the lobby group to both sides, as each of them pleaded for its support as if they were rival candidates vying to win its electorate support. If nothing else, the event highlighted the influence wielded by the Zionist lobby on US foreign policy; a reality established by several notable academic studies. Realizing the strength of the lobby and its absolute commitment to Israel, the Obama administration has sought to neutralize the committee by carefully avoiding any emphasis on areas within which their interests clash, particularly the policies which currently undermine America's credibility and international standing.
Despite their best efforts, on the one hand, the current impasse poses a real test to the political will of the Obama administration. On the other hand, it represents a major test of the loyalty of the Jewish lobby in America [given an emerging clash between American interests and that of Israel] and its ability to influence US policy.
This has evidently become a crisis unlike any previous stand-off, not because of the dispute as such, but because it has generated widespread American and international concern. Both parties stand to lose much if they were to retract their announced positions. For Netanyahu, his political survival depends on the support of the settlers; his right-wing coalition government has made the strategic decision to expand the settlements. In contrast, the Obama administration is well aware that Israel's intransigence has exceeded all reasonable bounds and that there could be no meaningful progress toward peace without the reversal of Israeli settlement policy which is in flagrant breach of international law and UN Security Council resolutions.
Presumably, Obama's success in passing his health reform through Congress may strengthen his hand in adopting a more robust stance on the settlement issue. The President is not unaware of the damage done to America's image in the Middle East on account of its unlimited and almost blind support for Israel. If he is to maintain the trust and support of the 'moderate', friendly Arab states in the peace process, Obama must break from the past and steer a more balanced course between Israel and its neighbours.
On its part, AIPAC has called upon the Obama administration to contain growing tensions, arguing that US interests in the Middle East are achieved by maintaining a strong relationship with Israel. This in effect indicates AIPAC's alignment with Israel and a rejection of the US position, though not explicitly. The committee could well use its influence in American official circles to gradually change the position of the Obama administration.
One important outcome of the crisis is that in the future, the two parties will most likely portray the warmth of their relationship in public, and address crises in the manner of previous US administrations where disputes with Israel were maintained behind closed doors.
Eventually, the committee may succeed in softening the Obama administration's position and thus eliminate the need for further escalation against Israel. In addition, the US will no longer provide any real support for the oppressed Palestinians, and will continue to pressure Iran as a means of proving the US pledge to maintaining Israel's security. It is also possible that both parties will show compromise in order to save face. The most likely scenario is for Israel to declare a temporary suspension of settlement building and return the issue to the negotiation process, thus rendering it a Palestinian concern, and not a US demand.
In this sense, Israel is the ultimate winner, and the Arabs and Palestinians are the losers. Certainly, a major consequence of this will be an increase in hostility towards Americans in the region. However, will Americans understand the motivation behind Arab hatred? And will they ever get a full answer to their cry: Why do they hate us?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.