Not every Israel-US dispute is a major calamity

DIPLOMATIC AFFAIRS: When Jerusalem and Washington differ, it doesn’t mean a crisis is in the offing.

NEW BUILDINGS go up in Modi’in Illit earlier this year. (photo credit: FLASH90)
NEW BUILDINGS go up in Modi’in Illit earlier this year.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

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

That simple truth is one worth remembering when assessing America’s 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 construction of some 3,000 housing units beyond the Green Line.

No sooner had State Department spokesman Ned Price said last Friday that the US believes that respect for “a strong civil society” is critically important, and that Israel did not give the US any warning of its intent to designate the NGOs as terrorist organizations, than some were breathlessly speaking of the sharpest rebuke yet of Israel by the Biden administration.

Adding to the impression that Washington and Jerusalem were clashing, Price – at that same briefing – was asked about Israel’s plan to advance construction of the 3,000 units in the settlements, and responded that the US is “concerned” about the move and believes it is “critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tension and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.”

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

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

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

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

In looking at what happened last week in the US-Israel relationship, it is necessary, one former senior Israeli official advised, to separate the two issues: the settlement issue and the NGO one.

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of the new tenders was the first major settlement announcement that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government has made. It, therefore, provided the Biden administration with its first opportunity to make clear that it is returning to the traditional US 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 remove the settlements as a source of friction with the Trump administration. This was not a given, since, at his first meeting with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the White House in February 2017, Trump turned to Netanyahu and said, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”

The issue was removed as a dominant issue in the relationship because the sides came to a tacit agreement whereby Israel would keep the Americans updated and would minimize its territorial footprint when building in the settlements – meaning that construction of new units would not necessitate taking over more land.

Eventually, the Americans adopted the “Pompeo doctrine,” which held that the settlements were not “per se inconsistent with international law,” but that came much later. In the beginning, the chore was to just reduce friction over the issue, friction that – under the Obama years – continuously cast a cloud over 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 from the 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 does not intend to adopt the Obama administration’s stridency on the issue, either.

“Relative to the Obama administration, the response was muted,” said Michael Oren, who served as ambassador to the US during Obama’s first term and is well acquainted with how the Obama administration could articulate its displeasure.

“With Obama, if you put up one 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] is in no way comparable to Obama. No way. We announced building in Gilo in November 2009, and Obama stopped a tour he was on in China to come out and condemn it. I’ll never forget that. Do you see Joe Biden doing that? Biden is not saying anything.”

That this week’s public disapproval came from the mouth of the State Department spokesman, rather than from the president himself, is in itself significant, Oren said. Likewise, the language used is telling. He said that the US used the word “condemn” in 2010 when Israel announced during Biden’s visit as vice president that in seven years it would begin work on units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in Jerusalem.

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

“We are not on a collision course with America,” Oren said. We’re just not there.”

Price’s statement on the settlements, according to the former ambassador, “reflects the position of this Democratic administration. We always knew that there were things we are going to disagree about – the JCPOA [Iranian nuclear agreement] and the Palestinian issue.”

THE NGO issue is a separate one, and here – according to the former senior official – the US objections cannot be divorced from domestic American politics.

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

“We believe respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and a strong civil society are critically important to responsible and responsive governance,” he said. “We’ll be engaging our Israeli partners for more information regarding the basis for these designations. The Israeli government did not give the US advance warning that they would be designated.”

Yet Israeli officials insisted that they did inform the US about its intentions, with the Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director-General for Strategic Affairs Joshua Zarka saying publicly that he “updated the US about our intentions.” He spoke with the State Department’s Bureau of Counter-terrorism before the move.

The former senior official said what likely occurred was that Zarka and his counterpart probably spoke about a whole range of issues, with this being but one of them, and not one that screamed out as important enough to pass on.

“The person in the State Department who received the information probably did not understand what it meant,” the former official said.

Unlike the settlement issue, 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 about the NGO issue. No one knew where the Americans stood on this matter. So if the US knew in advance, and did not object, then it could be viewed as acquiescence. It was therefore important for Price to stress that the US did not know in advance.

“The administration probably got pressure from the Left and needed to take a position that they did not approve,” the official said. “In this case knowledge of it in advance would be seen as tacit approval, so they pushed back and said they were not informed.”

When Israeli officials insisted that the US was given notice, Price, on Tuesday, added a word to his original denial of knowledge, saying that the US did not get a “specific” heads-up about any imminent designation

Following the incident, Israel decided to dispatch a delegation from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Foreign Ministry to present the intelligence that led to the move to the Americans, a clear indication that Jerusalem had indeed not gone in-depth with the Americans on this issue beforehand.

The reason that Israel did not do so beforehand goes back to what was stated 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 whether such a movie was “okay.”

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

Seen from this viewpoint, the US response is not indicative of a crisis between the Biden administration and Israel, but, rather, of a desire by the administration to gain political space from the decision so it can turn to those in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who were up in arms at the move – such as congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – and say that they did not sign off on this beforehand.

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