No other foreign policy initiative has more consistently tripped up U.S. presidents than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Now, President Barack Obama is in line to run the gantlet. Like previous presidents, he faces the deal-breaking issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
This one issue alone has made the United States appear to be complicit in the so-called peace process that, as if by design, never goes anywhere. And the United States, the only outside force with the power to make an immediate and lasting and positive difference, is not seen as an aggressive and honest broker.
The result is that the Palestinians, along with other Arabs, do not trust America to advocate for them. The Israelis benefit from America's inaction by encroaching deeper and deeper into the territories, even as peace talks have proceeded.
In a July 31 editorial, the New York Times, which has had a strong journalism presence in Israel since its founding in 1948, writes that "the last American president to openly challenge Israel on settlements was George H.W. Bush and we commend President Obama for demanding that Israel halt all new construction. The controversy must not obscure Mr. Obama's real goal: nudging Israel and the Palestinians into serious peace negotiations."
Well, the nudging is a failure. Even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Obama plan to meet at the United Nations later this month, Israel authorized the construction of 455 housing units in the West Bank and evicted Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes.
While Palestinian leaders reacted angrily, the response from Washington was, once again, tepid: "As the president has said before," according to a White House statement, "the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement expansion, and we urge that it stop. We are working to create a climate in which negotiations can take place, and such actions make it harder to create such a climate."
Such vacillation - urging and not demanding - casts America as a willing partner in land-taking that is considered to be illegal by world leaders and agencies, including the United Nations. In a July 23 commentary for the Christian Science Monitor, Walter Rodgers, CNN bureau chief in Jerusalem for nearly six years, wrote: "U.S. presidents have so frequently pledged unshakable support for Israel that it's created the illusion that the U.S. and Israeli interests are identical. It might be useful for Mr. Obama and his Middle East team to publicly point to serious differences with Israel when they arise. If the U.S. can have public disagreements with its allies, including Britain, why should Israel be exempted from what could be a healthy debate?"
Americans - who dole out more than $4 billion a year to Israel, not counting commercial loan guarantees - should want an ongoing debate on the settlement issue. In addition to questioning the amount of money involved in this relationship, we should be concerned about the moral quandary we are cast into for our blind support of Israel.
We should be concerned that in our name and with our money, an indigenous people, the Palestinians, have been made into a diaspora on their own land. Anyone who travels to the territories with open eyes and an open mind senses the injustice of the land-taking as Jewish housing proliferates. The land Israel is taking is the same land the Palestinians need as part of the independent state they dream of.
"From the air, these settlements appear a terrestrial octopus, extending out to ultimately link up with the more militant Jewish settlements further south," Rodgers writes. "Settlement building resembles military flanking and encirclement maneuvers, isolating Palestinian population centers. In Jerusalem, there are at least half a dozen Arab neighborhoods, including the Mount of Olives, threatened by Israel's voracious hunger for land."
Yes, Israel should feel secure. But when the appeal for security is employed as a permanent ruse for building what amounts to cheap suburban housing for settlers, Americans should be concerned, so concerned that we should demand an honest accounting from the Israelis and a serious debate here in this country.