"What does an American president do when Israel tells him 'no'?" Dan Kurtzer, former ambassador to Israel, asked during a conference at Brandeis University last week. "Nothing."
Kurtzer's statement should come as no surprise. U.S. President Barack Obama didn't do anything when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly offended him after their White House meeting, or during his speech in Congress; he did nothing when Netanyahu rejected the demand to freeze settlement construction; and he did nothing when Netanyahu rejected his ideas on peace talks and the 1967 borders.
"And when was the last time an American ambassador said anything to upset Israel?" Kurtzer asked. "Never happened."
Kurtzer's conclusion is unequivocal: There is no determination by America to play in the Israeli-Palestinian mud. As such, there is no use holding one's breath in expectation of an American initiative. In fact, Kurtzer said, what's missing is not initiative but American will and the ability to realize it.
Kurtzer is not alone in his estimates. "Washington right now isn't available for a significant diplomatic move in the Middle East," a senior official in the State Department said. "At most, it will make some noise ahead of September. It will even join any European initiative, however useless."
U.S. diplomats Dennis Ross and David Hale, who both arrived in Jerusalem last week as if they were Olympic runners, knew they were entrusted with an extinguished torch, and without more fuel they can't bring anything new. Their mission certainly doesn't represent an innovative and daring approach to diplomacy.
But throwing pebbles at the windows of the State Department or White House is about as effective as a man drowning in a swamp throwing mud at the shore to get attention. Obama and his team are not actors who are waiting, with bated breath, to be scored by juries in Israel or Ramallah. Washington is not here to do favors for either Israel or the Palestinians, but to enhance its own standing in the region. That is because the United States - despite its insistence that it cannot want peace more than the parties involved - has its own interests, and the mediation service it offers Israel is for profit. That is because - when the Middle East is catapulted between civil wars and the sprouting of democracy; when beyond it a contest of influence is growing once more between Russia, the United States and China; and while Europe is polishing its elegant nails in the advent of the next phase of the Middle East - the United States wants and needs to know who is on its side, who the good guys are and who are the bad guys.
U.S. President George Bush had it easy: By definition, Israel was aligned with the United States, while most of the Arab and Muslim states were "against" it. The revolutions of his time were not carried out by the Arab public. The United States carried them out instead, regardless of what the public thought.
Obama - who is trying to extricate himself from the mire of American conquests and, at the same time, preserve America's clout in the region - now needs an Israeli partner who will endorse an approach based on the notion that American support and cooperation are more vital to Israel's existence than a few settlements on some rocky hills. He's not asking Israel for a return on the past, but he is offering a profit in the future. After all, this is not about sentiment or some American-Israeli moral obligation, but about interests.
And what if Israel once again rejects the American business plan and fails to endorse Obama's definition of profit? At first glance, one might expect the same "nothing" Kurtzer described. The United States won't place sanctions on Israel, it won't freeze aid to Israel, and it will even agree to continue hosting Israeli prime ministers. But Israel will then become a client rather than a partner - a client with a debt that it doesn't even bother to pretend it's going to pay. The United States has had plenty of clients like that in the Middle East and beyond. They are all sure they are America's friends. This is the essence of the "nothing" developing in Israel's relations with its strategic home front. This is not the "nothing" of helplessness, but the "nothing" of the void in the Israeli-American relationship.
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