Israel: An outpost of empire

Israel's sense of impunity knows no limits, writes Michael Fiorentino, who recently returned from a two-month stay in the occupied West Bank.

Vice President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to IsraelVice President Joe Biden with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to Israel

"JERUSALEM IS not a settlement," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the March 22 meeting of the American Israeli Political Action Committee. "It is our capital."

These were confident words, especially in light of the "strained" diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Israel after it was announced that Israel would construct 1,600 new housing units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo.

The announcement, which coincided with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to the country on March 9, was an act of defiance in the face of the Obama administration's earlier call for Israel to halt settlement construction as a precondition for restarting "peace negotiations" with the Palestinian Authority.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units," said Biden. "[The] substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now and runs counter to the constructive discussions that I've had here in Israel."

Mainstream commentators, such as the New York Times' Thomas Friedman and Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, have spilled much ink decrying the "crisis" in U.S.-Israeli relations.

But the supposed tension in the "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel is largely to please domestic constituencies. Netanyahu is anxious to demonstrate his commitment to the maximum program of Israel's colonial expansion in the face of criticism from his right, and Obama is eager to show the skeptics that he is an unflinching Israel booster who can be "tough on the Arabs."

So the "damage control" started immediately. Two days after his initial statement critical of Netanyahu's plan to build more settlement housing, Biden was reiterating that the U.S. has "no better friend than Israel." When Netanyahu came to the U.S. for a closed-door meeting with Obama on March 24, the leaders of both parties in Congress were quick to show that support for apartheid Israel is thoroughly bipartisan.

"We in Congress stand by Israel, something we have a joint bipartisan commitment [to]," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "[There's] no separation between us on this subject. In Congress, we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel."

And here was the fawning House Republican leader John Boehner: "We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel. We all know we're in a difficult moment. I'm glad the prime minister is here so we can have an open dialogue."

The dialogue ended with Netanyhu reaffirming that the plans for the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood would not be halted. Indeed, the next day, the Jerusalem Municipality gave the go ahead to the construction of 20 new settler homes in Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab neighborhood in East Jerusalem that has been targeted by the extreme right-wing Ateret Cohanim settler group.

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Stephen Maher, in an article entitled "The U.S.'s choreographed outrage at Israel," points out the main complaint coming from the Obama adminstration isn't over the substance of the announcement, but rather the timing.

According to Maher:

[T]he Obama Administration merely reacted to a diplomatic affront it was dealt by the Israeli government. Israel's announcement came on the same day that Biden had arrived in the country to proudly confirm the U.S.' "absolute, total and unvarnished" commitment to its ally, and commence indirect talks with the Palestinians.

Following the announcement, protests and violent clashes broke out in Jerusalem and elsewhere throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Responding to this pressure, the Arab League threatened to cancel its endorsement of the indirect negotiations, with Secretary Amr Moussa even announcing that the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had decided not to participate in the talks.

As the endorsement was the only political cover Abbas had to re-enter negotiations, the U.S. administration took careful notice of these events as pressure on Abbas to abandon talks from within the territories mounted. With the Arab world outraged and Biden humiliated due to the degree of U.S. complicity that the timing of the announcement revealed, the Obama administration was forced to react.

In fact, the 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo seem like an afterthought when compared to Israel's long-term plan for settlement building in East Jerusalem.

According to a March 11 article in Israel's Haaretz newspaper:

Some 50,000 new housing units in Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line are in various stages of planning and approval, planning officials told Haaretz. They said Jerusalem's construction plans for the next few years, even decades, are expected to focus on East Jerusalem.

Most of the housing units will be built in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, while a smaller number of them will be built in Arab neighborhoods. The plans for some 20,000 of the apartments are already in advanced stages of approval and implementation, while plans for the remainder have yet to be submitted to the planning committees.

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How is the machinery of settlement in such full swing in light of the tensions regarding the housing units in Ramat Shlomo? The truth is that despite the initial face-saving condemnation from various U.S. officials, the complaints about the housing units were entirely toothless.

Netanyhu's government has nothing to worry about--if the U.S. was serious about reigning in the plans for settlements, it could threaten to withhold some of the $3 billion in aid headed to Israel this year alone.

In fact, the precedent was set in December 2009, when the Netanyahu government initially responded to U.S. calls for a total halt in settlement expansion by declaring a "settlement freeze" that was to last 10 months.

But the "freeze" did not apply to settlements that had already been approved or were under construction, did not apply to Jerusalem, and did not apply to public and municipal buildings.

But to treat the policy of Netanyahu as an aberration would be a mistake. It is true that his cabinet is decidedly right wing and includes Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. Lieberman has distinguished himself as a racist provocateur, calling on Palestinian citizens of Israel to take an "oath of loyalty" to the Zionist state or face expulsion.

But Netanyahu's settlement policy fits into a historical trajectory rooted in the Zionist project of colonization and displacement of native Palestinians.

Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., recently summarized the situation with disarming honesty. "Netanyahu's policy on construction in Jerusalem is no different than that of his predecessors," said Oren. "We should not, however, allow peace efforts, or the America-Israel alliance, to be compromised by Israel's policy on Jerusalem...That policy is not Mr. Netanyahu's alone but was also that of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Golda Meir--in fact of every Israeli government going back to the city's reunification in 1967."

Oren is right. The Netanyahu government may have committed a diplomatic gaffe, but it in no way departed from the script of ethnic cleansing.

Missing from any of the mainstream bluster was any acknowledgment that, according to international law, East Jerusalem is occupied territory that should be immediately evacuated by Israel. Nor has it been acknowledged that the settlements are in direct contravention of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which clearly states that "an occupying power shall not...transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

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Israel's ability to openly defy international law year after year without facing any diplomatic consequences depends first and foremost on U.S. backing. The United States is fundamentally aligned with Israel because it uses Israel to project its imperial influence in the resource-rich region. This is why no word of protest was uttered when four Palestinian youth in the West Bank were shot and killed by the Israeli soldiers at peaceful demonstrations in March.

It explains the continued support of the U.S. for the criminal siege of Gaza, which denies basic necessities to the 1.5 million inhabitants of the open-air prison that Gaza has become.

Israel has been dealt a round of public relations setbacks since Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, most notably the release of the Goldstone Report, which found that the Israeli government is guilty of war crimes, including the deliberate targeting of schools, mosques and hospitals.

But the Obama administration has nevertheless offered to serve as Israel's chief backer and apologist, regardless of the deadly toll of Israel's war on the Palestinian people.

Whatever the nature of the squabbles over the years, the fundamental dynamic of the "special relationship" persists: the U.S. supplies the money and guns, and Israel acts as the enforcer for U.S. interests in the Middle East.