Failed US/Israel deal shines light on their relationship
Dec 13, 2010

Failed US/Israel deal shines light on their relationship

Somewhat artificially, the latest round of prospective peace talks between Israel and Palestine have centered around the issue of Israeli settlement activity in land Palestine claims for its own.  Israel restarted settlement activity around the time of the start of the talks causing Palestine to largely withdraw from the talks. The US response has been, until recently, to try and convince Israel to abandon its settlement activity for three months. The result of this offer gives some interesting insight into their relationship.

The deal the US created was an enormous carrot for Israel. It consisted of a large amount of military aid, promise of continued diplomatic assistance (ie, vetoing unfriendly UN resolutions) and perhaps most importantly an official sanctioning to restart settlement construction after the three months were up. This has few downsides for Israel because they can stall the settlement for a minor three months and be at exactly the same place only with all the benefits of the US package. While one can argue that military and diplomatic aid are all but guaranteed to Israel over time (and hence immediately accepting the package is not as substantial a benefit as it seems) it is nonetheless a significant incentive with few downsides.

Yet, Netanyahu was sufficiently resistant that the US eventually withdrew the offer, thereby significantly condemning the chances of short term success in the peace negotiations. A large part of this was a matter of convincing the hard right elements of his ruling alliance, however the fact that these incentives were not significant to persuade the alliance is telling.

One conclusion from these events that we can reach is that it provides a counterexample to the narrative that the key characteristic of the US-Israeli relationship is of patron and client. The US cannot simply demand actions from Israel and expected it to follow, as is often suggested. There is still value to the narrative - the US remains an enormous military and diplomatic backer of Israel - but it is not absolute.

Looking forward, this example demonstrates the ineffectiveness of simply offering incentives, especially when the incentives are icing on the cake of unilateral support. Instead, a more effective strategy may well be threaten to remove or slightly dismantle the level of support that exists currently. Imagine, for instance, if the US were to withdraw its veto and allow for security council resolutions condemning human rights abuses or calling for nuclear inspection that the general assembly periodically considers. A threatened push by the US to get inspectors of Israeli nuclear facilities may well be far more likely to result in Israel adopting US supported policies like the settlement issue than the incentives given.

The settlement issue I feel became a symbolic issue, a line in the sand if you will, that is of little importance in and of itself. This was not in the key issues of security, right of return and the like that dominated other peace talks. Now that Israeli settlement has been normalized, the only good we can hope for is that it lets us move to more important issues on the peace talks.

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