Why Pick on Friends? The Case for Letting Israel Build Apartments

by ROBERT WEISSBERG January 2, 2013

Like many supporters of Israel I was surprised at the US and EU outrage when Israel authorized the building of apartments in East Jerusalem. The indignation made little political sense. The claim that construction would doom a negotiated peace is bizarre-based on the historical record of countless rejected past peace initiatives, I'd estimate the likelihood of a peace treaty over the next five years to be one-in-a-hundred; construction might reduce it to one-in-two-hundred. More relevant, all Palestinian leaders, even so-called "moderate" ones have repeatedly embraced violent "resistance" to Israeli "occupation" and it is difficult to image their white hot anti-Israel hatred growing even hotter. Nor will "being tough on Israel" boost US and EU stock in a region where being anti-Western is a safe, popular political strategy.  In other words, the US and EU complaint is a pointless gesture that will not achieve a fantasized Middle East peace or anything else of value.

So, why the US and EU ire? Surely there more pressing issues in the region than building apartment buildings on vacant land.

My own bafflement continued for weeks until I had a Eureka moment-the Obama administration and EU leaders were stymied about doing anything positive in the region so criticizing Israel was at least doing something. Outrage is not an exercise of power; it is a sign of policy impotence, more akin to feel-good therapy in the face of mounting frustration that had nothing to do with Israel.

To understand this reaction, let me recount a familiar tale. A police officer one midnight encounters a drunk crawling around the base of a lamppost. The officer asks for an explanation, and the drunk says he's searching for his lost car keys. Where did you lose them, asks the policeman? Over there, pointing into the dark, replies the drunk. Why not look there, the officer asks? Because there's more light here, the drunk answers.

Israel is where the light is. Israeli leaders are reasonable, speak English, they understand negotiations, they are amenable to deal-making, and there is a clear cut legal chain of command. On repeated occasions Israel has even bent over backwards to secured written guarantees of peace. Of the utmost importance, Israeli leaders honor the principle that a deal's a deal.

By comparison, consider the US and the EU negotiating with other Islamic states in the region (and this would include Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Turkey). In many instances, for example, Libya, Lebanon, Yemen and Egypt, it is unclear who controls what. Yes, a formal government exists, but actual power may reside in the military, tribal leaders, the King's brother, private armies, street mobs or the Mullahs and even trying to make a deal with these folks is risky. Those bypassed in the negotiations will immediately denounce this outside meddling and threaten trouble. Meanwhile the actual locus of power can shift monthly and the awkward reality is that the political landscape abounds with dozens of rivals, none of which resemble a sovereign government.    

Deal-making problems are further exacerbated if one of the parties is a certified terrorist (e.g., Hamas or Hezbollah). Yes, it is possible to contact terrorists via intermediaries, but can you imagine the fallout from cutting a deal with them? What American president wants to be known as the man who successful talked turkey with the Taliban? (Compare this to Kissinger negotiating with the North Vietnamese or Nixon with the Communist Chinese, two sovereign nations albeit communist dictatorships). And how long would the head of Hamas last once it became known that he had agreed with the Great Satan over swapping land with the Little Satan to end "the resistance"?

Moreover, left unstated is whether any agreement in the Middle East outside of Israel is worth the paper it is written on. Recall the old definition of an honest politician-one who stays bought after being bought. Think about all the multiple ultimately failed agreements reached between the US and leaders in Afghanistan Iraq, and "our friend" Pakistan. Even if the US pressured President Morsi to protect Egyptian Copts as a condition of foreign aid, would a signed memo of agreement hold? Probably not. The rule of law is not something that immediately comes to mind when thinking about the Islamic Middle East.

The larger point here is that, to be blunt, Uncle Sam is impotent when it comes to imposing his will in the Middle East regardless of billions in foreign aid and endless pledges of mutual assistance. For the richest nation and the world's foremost military power, powerlessness is not an easy verdict to accept. It is no wonder, then, that we suffer from the irrepressible urge "to do something" even if it accomplishes zero

Condemning Israel's decision to build apartment buildings is not a substitute for exasperation elsewhere. Uncle Sam should study some history to appreciate that many of today's worldwide problems, including those in the Middle East, are enduring, intractable conditions, not momentary tribulations. Whenever I see US diplomats trying to negotiate something in that part of the world, it strikes me as the equivalent of herding cats-futile. Better to stick by one's tried and true friends than attempting to appear "even handed" to win over enemies.        

FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Robert Weissberg is emeritus professor of political science, University of Illinois-Urbana. He has written many books, the most recent being: The Limits of Civic Activism, Pernicious Tolerance: How teaching to "accept differences" undermines civil society and  Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. Besides writing for professional journals, he has also written for magazines like the Weekly Standard and currently contributes to various blogs. 


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