As long as Washington views ending the occupation as an Israeli problem instead of a Palestinian problem, it will never even consider using its leverage to do so.
The United States issued an unusually sharp rebuke on Wednesday to news that Israel is building a brand new settlement in the West Bank. The State Department sounded mad. The White House sounded mad. Nobody is going to do anything about it.
It’s not that the United States is powerless in the face of an Israeli government that for nearly four decades has refused to heed Washington’s and the entire international community’s demands to stop building and populating settlements. Both the United States and the United Nations have tools for compelling belligerent states into compliance.
The problem is a matter of perception will. The United States does not perceive the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — or rather, the Israel occupation of Palestinian land and the denial of basic Palestinian rights — as a Palestinian problem. To the United States, and much of the West, the impetus for ending the occupation and achieving a two-state solution is preserving Israel’s strategic interests, not protecting Palestinian rights.
“It is deeply troubling, in the wake of Israel and the U.S. concluding an unprecedented agreement on military assistance designed to further strengthen Israel’s security, that Israel would take a decision so contrary to its long term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians,” State Department Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement Wednesday.
“Israelis must ultimately decide between expanding settlements and preserving the possibility of a peaceful two state solution,” Toner continued. “Proceeding with this new settlement is another step towards cementing a one-state reality of perpetual occupation that is fundamentally inconsistent with Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state.”
That state of affairs is framed as an Israeli decision. But Israelis do not have the right — whether exercised through seemingly democratic means or unabashed military might — to choose to keep millions of people disenfranchised, living under a discriminatory and brutal military regime that maintains two sets of laws for people living side by side depending on their religion or ethnicity.
Nowhere does Toner, or the nearly identical statement issued by the White House, suggest that Israel’s perpetuation of the occupation, largely via its settlement enterprise, should be halted immediately because it systematically robs Palestinian men, women and children of their most basic, inalienable rights. Instead, “a one-state reality of perpetual occupation” poses a challenge to the domination of Israel’s democracy by Jewish Israelis.
Which brings us to the matter of willingness. Never in the history of the contemporary international system has diplomatic — or more serious — pressure been brought against a country for acting against its own interests. As long as that is how the United States perceives the urgency of ending the occupation, it will never be willing to take action to ensure the occupation ends.
Only if the United States starts to prioritize Palestinian rights over the minutia of Israel’s political system will it even consider using the type of leverage that might reflect that priority.
Both the State Department and White House on Wednesday made sure to create a correlation between the signing of a recent $38 billion military aid agreement and Washington’s unusually harsh articulation of disappointment with settlement growth. If the political will to change or halt Israeli settlement activity existed, the military aid agreement could have provided exactly the caliber of leverage that might make Israel’s leadership question their priorities.
But the United States is not that interested in ending the occupation, or even in preserving as much land as possible for a Palestinian state. And because Palestinian rights fall considerably lower than the religiously homogenous makeup of Israel’s elected government on Washington’s list of priorities, it’s not going to do a damn thing about it. At least not anything that matters.
In a press briefing later in the day Wednesday, Toner said almost exactly that (starting at around minute 22:55 — the transcript appears below):
QUESTION: Well, since you – since you started, since the United States starting – started opposing this kind of activity decades ago —
MR TONER: And you’re right, decades ago in —
MR TONER: — Republican and —
QUESTION: Under both administrations.
MR TONER: — as I’d say.
QUESTION: Yes, yes, I know. You read through the whole thing. Has it ever – have you ever seen – have you ever had any success?
MR TONER: Well —
QUESTION: There’s been —
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I realize there have been short-term freezes, but it just seems to me that if you feel —
MR TONER: There have been short-term freezes.
QUESTION: — this strongly about it to come out with a statement like this that talks about the MOU that was just signed and President Peres’s death – if you come out with a statement that strong, don’t – I mean, don’t you expect it to have some kind of an effect?
MR TONER: Yes, we do.
QUESTION: You clearly feel strongly about it.
MR TONER: Of course we do.
QUESTION: But you – you do expect it to have some kind of effect, but you know that it won’t?
MR TONER: You’re saying that – I was simply responding to your question that we don’t have – we’re not going to take any action. What I was trying to make clear —
QUESTION: Is that correct? You’re not going to do anything?
MR TONER: Well, again, we – our action is that —
QUESTION: Other than trying to make them feel bad?
MR TONER: No, but our action is that we convey to them both publicly and privately and to the world when we see Israel conducting itself in a way that runs counter to its security interests.