Am I the only one to note a smidgen of inconsistency in U.S. policy toward Israel?
On the one hand, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on May 27 about Israeli Jewish residences on the West Bank and the eastern part of Jerusalem:
With respect to settlements, the President was very clear when Prime Minister Netanyahu was here. He wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others. And we intend to press that point.
Likewise, Barack Obama said on June 4: "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. … It is time for these settlements to stop." And Clinton reiterated on June 17:
We want to see a stop to the settlements. We think that is an important and essential part of pursuing the efforts leading to a comprehensive peace agreement and the creation of a Palestinian state next to a Israeli Jewish state that is secure in its borders and future
Summary: We are treating Israel as a vassal state and telling it what to do. Period.
Contrast that with Vice President Joe Biden's July 5 replies to George Stephanopoulos. Stephanopoulos asked if Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu had the right approach when he agreed to give Barack Obama until the end of 2009 for the engagement with Iran to work, after which, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands?
BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself—it's a sovereign nation—what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?
BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues. If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?
BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can't dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.
BIDEN: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.
In a clarification at a press conference on July 6, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly emphasized that Biden had only been stating a fact, not sending a signal. Kelly had this exchange:
KELLY: Our goal here is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When I say "our," I don't mean just the U.S. This is the – it's the international community. So – and we're – so our approach right now is to be very engaged with international partners to get Iran to fulfill its obligations and responsibilities and to fully cooperate with the IAEA, as detailed in United Nations Security Council resolutions. Having said that, Israel is a sovereign country. We're not going to dictate its actions. We're also committed to Israel's security. And we share Israel's deep concerns about Iran's nuclear program. But for questions about what they plan to do in response to this, I really have to refer you to the Israeli Government.
QUESTION: Are you concerned at all that by saying Israel is a sovereign country and we're not going to dictate to them what their actions are, that your words, like the Vice President's words, may be interpreted as sort of a green light?
KELLY: I certainly would not want to give a green light to any kind of military action. But I mean, what – our policy is that we – that Israel is a sovereign country and we're not going to dictate its actions.
Today, Obama reiterated this point: "I think Vice President Biden stated a categorical fact, which is we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are. What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels."
Summary: Israel is a sovereign country that decides its own security interests.
Comments: (1) Quite a difference, no? Israel's sovereignty is swept aside when it comes to Jews building a new bedroom in eastern Jerusalem but respected when it comes to bombing Iran.
(2) Respecting a sovereign ally's security decisions is the U.S. norm, rudely ordering it what to do is the exception.
(3) Displeased as I am over the "settlement" issue, I prefer this situation to the reverse – Israelis free to build bedrooms but not to deal with Iran. (July 7, 2009)