Washington's Stance on Israel and Mideast Peace Is Murky

A number of questions remain over Washington's relationship with Israel, the Palestinians and where it stands on advancing peace talks.

WASHINGTON - This week in Washington started with three foggy questions: Was it really Vice President Joseph Biden who blocked clemency for Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard? What actually happened to U.S. aid to the Palestinians? And what will the U.S. do with the Middle East peace process after commending Israel on accepting the Quartet call for the renewal of talks and noting that the Palestinians also expressed their support.

First Biden. The vice president told a roomful of Jewish leaders he had personally demanded Pollard stay in jail after Israel made a clemency request, backed by a number of prominent former U.S. officials and congressmen. The statement raised questions among some bloggers as to whether Biden, who had previously expressed support for freeing Pollard, was actually just trying to make his boss look better in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

Obama and Abbas - AP - September 2011

Biden's office obviously wouldn't comment on a quote that came from an off-the-record meeting. Those who know Biden and his directness would probably agree he was just speaking his mind.

It's interesting, however, that many Jewish leaders declined this week to speak about the incident on the record. Some were concerned advocating for Pollard would raise questions of loyalty, as many still think he deserves his punishment, and should serve his jail term to the last day.

The Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman told Haaretz he thinks it's about time for the U.S. administration and the Jewish community to move past the controversy. "I was very much surprised to learn about Vice President Biden's remarks, since he seemed to support clemency in the past", Foxman said. "There was an appeal for clemency from people of both parties. I hope that Vice President will reconsider it. This is today an issue that has a consensus among the American Jewish community. It's almost inhuman to keep him in prison - he served his time and there is no justification to keep him in prison. We never said it was anti-Semitism, and he deserved what he got - but it got over the top in terms of punishment."

The secret freeze

During the holiday recess on Capitol Hill last week, Britain's Independent newspaper reported that Congress had already frozen aid to the Palestinians, catching many by surprise, despite the fact that congressmen from both parties repeatedly warned it might happen should the Palestinian Authority pursue its United Nations statehood bid.

However, there was no formal announcement, and the Palestine Liberation Organization envoy to the U.S., Maen Rashid Areikat, told Haaretz yesterday the Palestinians were not officially notified either by Congress or the Administration on such a step.

"Our position is well-known", he said. "It will not be wise for Congress to use the support for the Palestinians as a political tool. This aid is in the national security interest of the U.S., and undermining this support will undermine the U.S. interest. In our opinion, it's ineffective and a counterproductive tool."

A State Department official reiterated the U.S. administration position.

"We remain in close and ongoing contact with Congress to ensure continued U.S. support for Palestinian institution building, which we strongly believe is critical to preparing the ground for a successful and stable peace," the official said. "The U.S. Congress has generally been supportive of this dual track approach: vigorous integrated efforts on both negotiating and institution-building tracks. The institution-building work that has occurred with the help of our assistance has been vital to establishing and strengthening the institutions of a future Palestinian state. The U.S. has provided $200 million in direct budget support to the Palestinian Authority in this past fiscal year ... It is in the interest not only of the Palestinians, but of Israel and the U.S. as well, to ensure these efforts continue as they help to build a more democratic, stable and secure region. We are focused as well, of course, on working to restore direct negotiations between the parties through the implementation of the Quartet statement."

Israel did not have any official reaction to the congressional initiatives to cut aid to the Palestinians, with diplomats and some Knesset visitors noting behind the scenes that they did not ask for such a step.

Some Jewish American leaders noted to Haaretz they think freezing the aid - not cutting it - is actually a good step, because it's sending a message to the Palestinians that the U.S. is serious about warning that there will be consequences to their reluctance to return to the negotiating table.

J Street Director of Government Relations Dylan Williams told Haaretz he thinks this approach is "dangerous and counterproductive," especially if done in secret, and will only benefit Hamas.

'Focused on South Lawn handshakes'

As for the peace negotiations - a process that causes no excitement on either side - there are plenty of calls to change course. Ed Koch, a Jewish former mayor of New York City who has defended Israel in the past, told Haaretz that the mistake was to think the U.S. should be impartial in this process.

"Israel and the U.S. are and will remain allies. Previously it was understood that the U.S. can be an effective broker not because it treats both sides the same, but because it is Israel's ally and it can help to bring an agreement that will provide security arrangements that Israel can live with. That's absurd that the U.S. is criticized for its support of Israel, and I am happy President Obama clarified in his U.N. General Assembly speech where the U.S. stands," he said.

At a conference organized by the neo-conservative groups Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Hudson Institute on Capitol Hill yesterday on "The U.S.-Israel Relationship: Twenty Years after Oslo," John Hannah, former national security adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney, noted that the conflict has become a dominating issue for the Obama Administration's Middle Eastern agenda.

"It's almost an apostasy to ask that maybe we shouldn't devote so much energy and resources to an issue that is there for six decades," he said.

Another panelist, Kenneth Stein, director of the Middle East Research program at Emory University, called on the conference participants "to question our own assumptions." "Is the Palestinian state in the U.S. national interest? Or will it destabilize Jordan and the region?"

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams noted that it seemed that "everybody focused on the handshake on the South Lawn," and the U.S. "should push much harder for its principles. ... We were too much focused on transactions, not transformations. You cannot have leaders who are managers, you need leaders who have will and courage. Maybe Abbas is just an interim leader. We can't do the same thing over and over and hope it will bring different results. We can't choose the Palestinian leadership, but we can repeat constantly - on this the Bush administration did better - that we are Israel's friends and allies. When you see groups like the Quartet obsessed about every brick [in the settlements] - now the Palestinians say they cannot go to the negotiations table because of the construction, now it's the new excuse."

Do you believe both Netanyahu and Abbas were sincere in extending hands in peace toward each other, I asked Robert Danin, Tony Blair's adviser, who spent a week with him in New York during the U.N. General Assembly.

"I think those who say 'peace is impossible with those two guys,' is wrong," he said. "I am convinced they both want peace. And it's incumbent for us to keep trying. The more difficult question is whether there is a deal for which they are willing to pay the political price. The last attempts to bring them together were quite frustrating. I've been watching this process for 30 years, in some aspects it made progress - for instance, the willingness of Netanyahu to accept the two state solution. It went downhill in other things. When in 1947, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for creation of the Jewish state in Palestine and now it questions it - it's pretty depressing. But things never turn out as bad as we fear or as good as we hope. It is dangerous diplomatically for the U.S. to give up, because the best results might be delivered by the party Israel trusts, and it's the U.S. The only positive outcome of the vacuum might be when parties themselves start trying to reach an agreement - there were reportedly some talks between [Abbas] and Shimon Peres, but the U.S. stepping down leaves room for others to try - and there is no evidence they will be effective."