May 26, 2011

By Matt Duss

Just in case you were unclear on why the Palestinians have chosen to effectively withdraw from the U.S.-led peace process and try their luck at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech Tuesday, and the rapturous reception given it by a joint meeting of Congress, should have fixed that.

Even in the most positive interpretation of the speech, that it was simply a hardline opening bid for eventual negotiation, it was still a clear rejection of the U.S. president’s current attempt to bring the two sides back to the table under clear and legitimate terms of reference.

Michael Cohen had a great piece in Foreign Policy looking at how brazenly Republicans have sided with Netanyahu against the American president. But, as we saw Tuesday from the numerous standing ovations given to Netanyahu when he spoke before Congress, the problem isn’t just on the Republican side. Those were Democrats applauding too as Netanyahu basically told their president to take a hike.

In a surprisingly harsh take, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that those who want Israel to disappear “would be quite pleased with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s performance before Congress.” This is correct. But it’s also worth pointing out that the speech’s reception by Congress should delight anyone who desires the isolation of the United States and decline of its influence in the Middle East, because that will be the a consequence of the U.S. continuing to unconditionally support Israeli policies of occupation and settlement.

It’s also important to understand how detached the Congress is on this issue not only from rest of the international community, but also from what I would argue is a fairly strong consensus view within America’s own national security establishment, as expressed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and others.

Writing last year in the wake of Israel’s disastrous raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of America’s preeminent national security analysts, wrote that “the depth of America’s moral commitment [to Israel] does not justify or excuse actions by an Israeli government that unnecessarily make Israel a strategic liability when it should remain an asset.”

“The United States does not need unnecessary problems in one of the most troubled parts of the world, particularly when Israeli actions take a form that does not serve Israel’s own strategic interests,” Cordesman concluded. “Israel should be sensitive to the fact that its actions directly affect U.S. strategic interests in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it must be as sensitive to U.S. strategic concerns as the United States is to those of Israel.”

The popular uprisings in the Middle East should underline Cordesman’s warning even more strongly, as countries like Egypt are already showing that they will be more responsive to popular concern over the condition of the Palestinians, and less inclined to enforce American and Israeli red lines. But Netanyahu’s reckless overturning of the peace table that President Obama was trying to re-set indicate that he’s not interested in hearing any of it. And the raucous applause with which his rejectionism was received indicated — to the Palestinians, and to the world — that the current U.S. Congress has no interest in changing that. They couldn’t have argued the wisdom of the Palestinians’ UN strategy better if they’d tried.

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