Not all disputes between Israel and the US are a great calamity

Israel and the United States are close friends, but two separate and sovereign states. They have different interests, threats, and perspectives. They will not always agree. But not all disagreement is a crisis.

That simple truth is worth remembering when assessing the United States’ public disapproval last week of two Israeli actions: the designation of six Palestinian NGOs as terrorist entities and the announcement of plans to move forward with the construction of some 3,000 more housing units. beyond the Green Line.

As soon as State Department spokesman Ned Price said last Friday that the United States believes that respect for “a strong civil society” is critically important, and that Israel failed to warn the United States of its intention to appoint a NGOs as terrorist organizations, some were speaking breathlessly of the sharpest reprimand Israel has received from the Biden administration.

Adding to the impression that Washington and Jerusalem were colliding, Price was asked, in that same briefing, about Israel’s plan to advance the construction of the 3,000 units in the settlements, and responded that the United States is “concerned. “for the measure and believes it to be” It is critical that Israel and the Palestinian Authority refrain from taking unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and undermine efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution. “

If that in itself is not proof enough of a brewing crisis, Price reiterated Tuesday that the administration is concerned about the publication of tenders and “strongly opposes” the expansion of the settlements.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price delivers a press conference on Afghanistan at the State Department in Washington, USA, on August 16, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / Kevin Lamarque / POOL ).

So there you have it: the State Department spokesperson spoke, Biden-Bennett’s “honeymoon” is over, and Washington and Jerusalem are on a collision course. Right?

Wrong, because not every disagreement is a crisis, not every dispute is a sign of doom.

Looking at what happened last week in the relationship between the United States and Israel, it is necessary, warned a former senior Israeli official, to separate the two issues: the issue of settlements and that of NGOs.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the new tenders was the first major deal announcement made by the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Thus, it provided the Biden administration with the first opportunity to make clear that it is returning the traditional American opposition, which existed before the administration of US President Donald Trump, to building in the settlements.

It took a few months, but Jerusalem was able to eliminate the settlements as a source of friction with the Trump administration. This was not a fact, as, in his first meeting with then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in February 2017, Trump addressed Netanyahu and said: “I would like you to hold back a bit on the settlements.” . . “

The issue was removed as a dominant issue in the relationship because the parties reached a tacit agreement whereby Israel would keep Americans up to date and minimize its territorial footprint when building in the settlements, meaning that building new units would not require take over more. Earth.

Eventually, the Americans adopted the “Pompeo doctrine,” which held that the settlements were not “per se incompatible with international law,” but that came much later. At first, the task was simply to reduce friction on the issue, friction that, under the Obama years, continually overshadowed the entire bilateral relationship.

Israel’s announcement this week of plans to advance 3,144 units allowed the administration to make clear that it was breaking with Trump-era policies on settlements. At the same time, the relatively mild diplomatic language used to express disapproval was equally an indication that this administration also does not intend to embrace the stridency of the Obama administration on the issue.

“In relation to the Obama administration, the response was silent,” said Michael Oren, who served as ambassador to the United States during Obama’s first term and knows well how the Obama administration might express its discontent.

“With Obama, if you put a unit in Gilo [a neighborhood in Jerusalem built beyond the pre-1967 lines], the president would come out with a strong condemnation, “he said.

“This [what is happening now] it is in no way comparable to Obama. No way. We announced construction in Gilo in November 2009, and Obama stopped a tour where he was in China to come out and condemn him. I will never forget that. Do you see Joe Biden doing that? Biden isn’t saying anything. “

The fact that this week’s public disapproval comes from the mouth of the State Department spokesman, and not the president himself, is in itself significant, Oren said. Also, the language used is revealing. He said the United States used the word “condemn” in 2010 when Israel announced during Biden’s visit as vice president that in seven years it would begin working in units in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood.

“‘Condemn’ in diplomacy is the harshest language to use,” he explained. “You can ‘regret’, you can ‘repent’. But the sentence is used for acts of terrorism ”. Oren said the words Price chose to express his displeasure – “deeply concerned” – were relatively light.

“We are not on a collision course with the United States,” Oren said. We are just not there. “

Price’s statement on the settlements, according to the former ambassador, “reflects the position of this Democratic administration. We always knew there were things we would disagree on: the JCPOA [Iranian nuclear agreement] and the Palestinian problem. “

The NGO issue is a separate issue, and here, according to the former senior official, US objections cannot be separated from US domestic politics.

The uproar with Americans on the issue began on Friday, when Price was asked about Israel’s decision at his daily press conference.

“We believe that respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are vitally important for responsive and responsible governance,” he said. “We will engage our Israeli partners to learn more based on these designations. The Israeli government did not warn the United States in advance that they would be appointed. “

However, Israeli officials insisted that they informed the US of their intentions, and Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Strategic Affairs Joshua Zarka publicly said that he “informed the US of our intentions. “. He spoke with the State Department’s Counter-Terrorism Office before the move.

The former senior official said that what likely happened was that Zarka and his counterpart likely spoke on a wide range of topics, this being one of them, and not one that shouted important enough to get across.

“The person at the State Department who received the information probably didn’t understand what it meant,” the former official said.

Unlike on the issue of settlements, where the American opposition is widely known and can be assumed even if Israel makes a move in the settlements without notifying the US in advance, the same cannot be said on the issue of settlements. NGO. No one knew what the position of the Americans was on this matter. So if the United States knew in advance and did not object, then it could be seen as acquiescence. Therefore, it was important for Price to emphasize that the United States did not know this beforehand.

“The administration probably received pressure from the left and needed to take a position that they did not approve of,” the official said. “In this case, knowing about it in advance would be considered tacit approval, so they declined and said they were not informed.”

When Israeli officials insisted that the US be notified, Price on Tuesday added a word to his original denial of knowledge, saying the US did not receive a “specific” notice of any impending designation.

Following the incident, Israel decided to send a delegation from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the Foreign Ministry to present the intelligence that led to the movement to the Americans, a clear indication that Jerusalem had not deepened with the Americans. about this in advance.

The reason Israel did not do so beforehand goes back to what was said above: Israel and the US are separate sovereign countries. Had Israel provided this information beforehand, it would have suggested that it was waiting for a response to see if that film was “okay.”

“Let’s say the United States said no, then if you went ahead and did, you would be acting in defiance of the United States,” the former official said. “You don’t want to put the United States in a position that they know beforehand, because if they know it, they own it. Now they can say they didn’t know. “

Seen from this point of view, the US response is not indicative of a crisis between the Biden administration and Israel, but rather a desire by the administration to gain political space from the decision so that it can address itself to those of the progressive wing of the government. Democratic Party that took up arms in the measure, like Congressmen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, and say they did not approve this beforehand.

While this incident does not speak of a crisis between Israel and the Biden administration, it does show the impact that the extreme forces of the Democratic Party are having on the debate when it comes to Israel. And that’s something to worry about.

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