Dan Letovsky's recent piece, "Obama's treatment of Israel unfair, dangerous" (April 1, 2010), levies a strong, well-argued criticism against President Obama's controversial dismissal of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the planned expansion of Israeli settlements in contested East Jerusalem.
He criticizes what he considers to be harsh treatment by Obama, citing Israel's status as one of the favorite sons of the United States, and points out that Israel is still the only democracy in the region.
He parades around the standard argument for why Israeli suffering seems to exonerate it of its misdoings, instead calling upon the world to take issue with Arab countries for their faults. However, for all of this, the article misses the point entirely.
Letovsky posits that the disagreement between the administrations is due to the timing of Bibi Netanyahu's announcement of the planned settlements. What Obama's administration takes issue with is not the timing of the announcement of new settlements, but the settlements themselves. With the possible exception of George Bush Sr., every U.S. president has expressed concern about the Israeli settlement program.
No matter one's personal views on Israel, there is no denying that (a) continued Israeli settlements in contested lands have been nearly universally criticized and (b) the construction of settlements fly directly in the face of a number of recent unsuccessful peace accords established between the Israelis and Palestinians.
In short, the settlements are not only illegal under international law, but directly contribute to the violence and anger in the region. These settlements, including Ramat Shlomo, are not being built in Israel Proper, but instead outside the 1967 green line, and are largely populated by Jewish religious extremists.
In this light, Obama acted not only courageously in his refusal to accept continued Israeli arrogance, but historically as well. He has set a new precedent, finally exercising his clout in a display that will hopefully give the hard-line Israeli leadership something to think about.
For the first time, an American president has been brave enough to stand up to the New Israeli Right. Letovsky complains about a double standard that is often applied to Israel, and he's right to do so. But he also points out, inadvertently, the very reason for that double standard: It is the only democracy in the region.
By labeling itself a democracy and expecting international recognition as one, Israel must endeavor to hold itself to a higher standard than many of its neighbors.
Letovsky mentions that the United States doles out massive aid to a number of countries that don't recognize Israel's existence. However, he fails to mention that Israel itself is the No. 1 recipient of U.S. aid — more than $2.4 billion in 2008, and rising to $3.1 billion annually during the next decade.
So while it certainly is true that Israel, as a sovereign nation, is not a slave to the United States, it is also true that Israel finds itself, both currently and historically, in a large debt of gratitude for the vast military and financial contributions that American tax-payers have steadily provided since its birth. In this light, Obama is absolutely within his rights to stand firm in the face of Israeli obstinacy, as well as to demand change.
There's little chance that Israel would willingly turn its back on its most staunch and powerful supporter, along with billions of dollars in annual aid, over U.S. insistence that it halt its settlement program.
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In fact, when pressed recently on whether Obama's administration was considered a threat, Netanyahu repudiated the claim, instead emphasizing that the United States remains both a friend and an ally.
What often seems to be left out of the discussion is the fact that there is a wealth of criticism about the settlement program coming from within Israel.
It also seems to have been forgotten that Netanyahu only barely beat out his opponent, Tzipi Livny, who represented a far more conciliatory and, perhaps, reasonable ideology regarding Palestine. The settlements are cause for concern even within Israel, where most favor peace.
What is most important to recognize, though, is that peace in Israel and Palestine is only going to arrive when all parties involved are able and willing to reframe their dialogue and make a serious concession. The only way to see this through is to hold both parties firmly to their stated commitments, a point that Obama seems to grasp better than most.
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