Where there's a stick, there's also a carrot: the 'new' US position on Israel

By Jill R Russell:800px-U.S._and_Israeli_flags_are_flown_in_preparation_for_a_media_event_during_Austere_Challenge_2012_in_Israel_121024-F-SM325-002

This is the second of a three-piece series analyzing outcomes and impacts of the recent Israeli election. Next, Gianmarco Morassutti Vitale will consider how polarization around Netanyahu may actually result in mobilization.


“We’re currently evaluating our approach.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

Reading responses to the Obama Administration’s latest moves on Israel paints a starkly negative picture. An age of 24-hour news and social media trends means that it can be difficult to see diplomacy in public discourse between countries as one of give and take, statement and response. Coupled with this and despite every criticism of his process, President Obama continues to rely upon a slow unfolding to pursue his policies. The first step is never the policy but rather the signal of the preferred direction it should take. If this is the case, how should the recent statements on Israel, the United Nations and future relations be understood? Leaving behind the partisan interpretations dominating headlines and drawing these moves in stark binary terms to poison the relationship, removing that lens brings to the fore a more nuanced message of preferences and options.

Where there is a stick…

“The United States and this administration are deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

The ongoing Palestinian crisis is the thorn in the side of Arab-Israeli relations and stability within the region as a whole. Attenuating its emotion will serve the interests and desires of all reasonable parties, Israel first among them. To stanch the animosity towards the west the narrative has to shift to put them more on the side of the Palestinians. This can be done not only with Israeli consent, but in fact with their lead. The reference to their Arab citizens is a powerful reminder of the significant strategic edge Israel holds, but does not utilize, with respect to Hamas, because these citizens especially know that in any quality of life comparison Israel wins. This can be a wedge with the Palestinian people as well.

Despite the political difficulties it faces within a conservative Israeli demographic, the United Nations resolution regarding the two state solution and the 1967 borders is a sensible starting point for negotiations. There is no indication from the US that this would represent the end to a negotiation policy and it is puerile to suggest so. But to come to the table under those terms is, I suspect, a preference within the framework of greater regional diplomacy and relations.

Acquiescence to negotiation puts Israel in the better strategic and political position. Their agreement to the process puts pressure on Hamas amidst a growing narrative of discontent with the group in response to its cold calculations regarding the likely use of the civilian population as a human shield for the fine propaganda fodder of those casualties. Shifting the political burden to Hamas to negotiate allows the West and Israel to begin retaking the terrain of the strategic narrative.

…there is also a carrot.

“The premise of our position internationally has been to support direct negotiations between Israelis and the Palestinians. We are now in a reality where the Israeli government no longer supports direct negotiations. Therefore we clearly have to factor that into our decisions going forward.” US Administration spokesperson.

Netanyahu’s recent unwillingness to engage presents a challenge. One expects that the domestic political demands of the election drove this position. With that behind him softening is possible, probably not hurt by a small measure of American pressure to blame for it. There is only so far Netanyahu and Israel can go in terms of eschewing diplomacy. No matter the hardliners, in his party and beyond, the only path forward is negotiations. While military skirmishing might provide slight alterations in the political calculus, the answers will only be found in political settlement.

Thus, while this statement can read as a blunt dismissal of Israeli interests and needs, it also marks a clear and positive path forward. If the failure to engage is understood to justify negative consequence, it is equally the case that the opposite offers benefits. We are not at the end, but the beginning, offering as much hope as despair.

Pressure has been placed on Israel, to be sure, but it has been done so in a way that makes clear there are options. And while the partisans howl already it seems that Netanyahu has read the cues and is moderating his terms.

Jill S. Russell is a military historian and doctoral candidate who writes frequently on contemporary foreign policy and security issues. She is a regular contributor to Strife, Kings of War and Small Wars. You can follow her on Twitter @jsargentr.



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