Stop Building, Bibi!

The Israeli premier’s snub of Obama’s offer of generous benefits in exchange for a settlement freeze not only shows he values power more than peace, but also how impotent America has become.

10.05.10 11:00 PM ET

We now know exactly where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands on the issue of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. He believes the settlements are more important than Israel’s security, more important, even, than keeping Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

It was reported this week that President Barack Obama had written a confidential letter to the Israeli prime minister offering a package of benefits critical to Israel’s security needs in exchange for a 60-day extension of Israel’s settlement freeze so that the peace talks that have just gotten under way can have a chance to succeed. The offer apparently included upgrades to Israel’s advanced weapons systems, an increase in the $3 billion in aid the U.S. sends annually to Israel, the creation of a regional defense pact to deter Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and much more.

It should not surprise anyone that Netanyahu has rebuffed Obama’s proposal. His Likud Party platform expressly rejects the possibility of a Palestinian state, and his right-wing coalition has made it clear it will not abide by any kind of extension to the 10-month settlement moratorium. To go against his coalition’s demands would require Netanyahu to enter into a power-sharing arrangement with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and sharing power is not something Netanyahu does well. Indeed, as the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reports, Netanyahu did not even bring up the issue of an extension, as everyone expected he would, in Tuesday’s closed-door meeting with his Cabinet.

But there should no longer be any trace of doubt in anyone’s mind about Netanyahu’s priorities. By renewing full Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, despite the appeals of world leaders and the offer of increased aid and security made by the United States, the Israeli prime minister has sent an unmistakable message: He cares more about Israel’s settlement enterprise and about maintaining his coalition than he does about peace with the Palestinians or keeping nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands.

This is not only a tragedy for American interests in the region and the prospects for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is also definitive proof of how impotent America has become in dealing with its ally, Israel. No wonder the White House has strenuously, albeit unconvincingly, denied the existence of the confidential letter. After all, Netanyahu has rebuffed every demand made by Obama with regard to Israel’s settlements.

After warning the Israeli leader that it would accept nothing short of a full and permanent settlement freeze, the Obama administration backed down and praised as heroic Israel’s 10-month partial moratorium on settlement construction. Then, as that moratorium was about to expire last week, Obama used his speech before the United Nations to plead publicly with Netanyahu to extend it for a few more months in the name of peace. When that plea was ignored, the White House was barely able to muster a statement of “disappointment” at Israel’s decision.

Now, this latest embarrassment—Israel’s rejection of a wide-ranging and unprecedented package of aid and security guarantees in return for two more months of the settlement freeze—once and for all settles the debate over who truly holds the power in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

This latest embarrassment settles the debate once and for all over who truly holds the power in the relationship between Israel and the United States.

The danger of this new power dynamic is that it makes the U.S. look weak and ineffectual both to its allies and enemies in the region. If the Obama administration is incapable of standing up to Israel, despite the billions of dollars in taxpayer money it sends to the country every year, then why should anyone else in the region take the U.S. seriously? If the president of the United States cannot ask the Israeli prime minister for two more months of a settlement freeze, does anyone think he could dissuade Israel from, say, launching a pre-emptive military strike on Iran—an attack that would have catastrophic consequences for America’s political and economic interests in the region?

It remains to be seen whether Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will stick to his promise to back out of the negotiations if settlement activity in the West Bank continues. Abbas will be meeting with representatives of the Arab League this week to formulate a response to Netanyahu’s decision not to extend the settlement freeze.

But one thing is clear: The Israelis deserve a leader who will put their safety and security above his own drive for maintaining personal power. The United States deserves an ally who will reciprocate its unconditional friendship. With each passing day, Benjamin Netanyahu is proving to be neither of those things.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East comes out in Nov. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.