Following in Obama's Footsteps, Ambassador Shapiro Succumbs to Netanyahu

The American president has given up on changing the situation of Palestinians in the West Bank; now his envoy in Tel Aviv retreats from even describing it.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv. January 18, 2016.
United States Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) conference in Tel Aviv in January 2016.Credit: Chen Galili
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg that, “My job in being a friend to Israel is partly to hold up a mirror and tell the truth.” It was an odd thing to say. Holding up mirrors to injustice is the job of journalists and human rights activists. American presidents aren’t elected to expose reality; they’re elected to change it. 

But Obama hasn’t changed Israeli reality. Domestically, the political costs have proved too high. So last week at the Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro held up a mirror. “At times,” Shapiro declared, “it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank - one for Israelis and one for Palestinians.” He went on to declare that the United States government is “concerned and perplexed” by Israeli settlement policies “which raise questions about Israeli intentions.”

It wasn’t a particularly harsh mirror. Declaring that, “At times, it seems Israel has two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank - one for Israelis and one for Palestinians” is like saying “At times, Americans drive on the right side of the road.” Israel does have “two standards of adherence to rule of law in the West Bank.” Not some of the time; all of the time. Palestinians in the West Bank live unde military law; Jews in the West Bank live under Israeli civil law. And as the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) explained in a 2015 report entitled “One Rule, Two Legal Systems,” the military law that governs Palestinians “is far more severe than the Israeli legislation applied to [Jewish] settlers, and this discrimination touches upon almost every aspect of life.”

Moreover, the United States is not “perplexed” by Israeli settlement policies. There’s nothing perplexing about them; Benjamin Netanyahu is foreclosing the possibility of a Palestinian state. Between 2009, when he returned to the prime minister’s office, and 2014, population growth in the settlements grew at almost double the rate inside Israel proper, and almost as fast in settlements beyond the separation barrier as in settlements within it. The man Netanyahu has appointed to negotiate with the Palestinians is on record as saying that, “We are all against a Palestinian state.” Netanyahu’s defense minister said in 2014 that, “It is time to free ourselves of the concept that everything leads to a framework that is called a state.” Netanyahu’s deputy foreign minister said last year that, “This land is ours. All of it is ours.” And Netanyahu himself said in 2014 that, “there cannot be a situation, under any agreement, in which we relinquish security control of the territory west of the River Jordan”- i.e. the West Bank.

Nevertheless, Shapiro’s comments were useful. They were useful because Americans are so used to praising Israeli democracy that they rarely stop to notice that in the West Bank, Israel is only a democracy for Jews. For Palestinians, all of who live under Israeli control but without Israeli citizenship, Israel isn’t a democracy. It’s closer to a police state. As the ACRI report notes, “from a legal and practical perspective, the freedom of expression of Palestinians in the West Bank is virtually nonexistent. Military laws define Palestinian vigils and demonstrations as illegal assemblies, army and police forces treat them as a threat, and the vast majority are violently dispersed by security forces, sometimes resulting in fatal consequences.”

This is the reality that Netanyahu wants to ensure Americans don’t discuss. And so his government responded to Shapiro’s comments by slandering the U.S. ambassador as indifferent to Palestinian terrorism. “The ambassador’s statements, on the day when a mother of six who was murdered is buried, and on a day when a pregnant woman is stabbed – are unacceptable and wrong,” declared the Prime Minister’s Office. “Israel enforces the law on Israelis and Palestinians.” Notice the dishonest language. Yes, Israel enforces “the law” in the West Bank. That law just differs depending on whether you’re a Palestinian or a Jew. And why is it “unacceptable” for Shapiro to question Israeli policy on a day in which Israelis die? His comments were both true and shared by many of the Israeli security officials who fight terrorism for a living. Netanyahu, as he so often does, was exploiting Jewish death to win arguments that he can’t win any other way.

It worked. This week Shapiro told Israel’s Army Radio that “the timing [of his comments] wasn’t ideal” and all but apologized to the families of the Israelis hurt in terrorist attacks.  

If you want to understand why most Palestinians long ago lost faith in America’s ability to help end the occupation, this is why. First, Obama gives up on trying to change Israeli behavior and settles for merely describing it. Then, when his ambassador actually does so, in a mild and cautious way, he wilts under Israeli attack. Congratulations, Bibi, you’ve won yet again. And your country, yet again, has lost.