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It is difficult to gauge the rationale for Panetta’s public comments, given the apparent lack of any plan to follow them up with actions. The comments appear only to give increased ammunition to Obama’s Republican opponents in the midst of an intense election season battle for Jewish support, without any compensatory gain in terms of changing the situation in the region. Experts believe that Panetta’s statements reflect more the need of administration officials to vent their feelings than a planned drive to move Israel on the peace process.
“The pursuit of Arab-Israel peace is closed for the season,” said Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Miller, a former State Department peace negotiator, said that administration officials are plainly “fed up” with the lack of response on the Israeli side and of having virtually no avenue to promote the peace process.
“It would be a mistake to interpret this as putting the burden on Israel,” said Robert Wexler, president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Wexler, a former congressman who is now active as a surrogate for Obama’s re-election campaign, said that the administration is not angry at Israel. “This is not about frustration. It’s about not being complacent,” Wexler said.
For all the attention Panetta garnered, though, disagreements over dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict are not new. But some other recent statements by administration officials have injected new issues into the already tense relationship.
During a closed-door session at the Saban Forum conference, Clinton reportedly lashed out at attempts by Israeli lawmakers, with some backing from the Netanyahu government, to limit the activity of civil society nongovernmental organizations. She was also said to have expressed anger at accounts of increased gender segregation in Israel. Clinton took particular issue with reports that women are required to take the back seats on certain bus lines in Israel, a demand that reminded her of Rosa Parks and America’s civil rights struggle.
In a recent conversation with senior aides to Netanyahu, Dan Shapiro, American ambassador to Israel, also conveyed Washington’s dismay with recent proposed legislation to limit foreign government funding for NGOs deemed critical of Israel.
Meanwhile, adding to tensions between the Obama administration and the pro-Israel community is an unrelated comment made recently by Howard Gutman, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium. Gutman escribed different types of anti-Semitism in Europe in a speech to Jewish leaders and explained that one aspect of Jew hatred was “largely born of and reflecting the tension between Israel, the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab states in the Middle East over the continuing Israeli-Palestinian problem.”
Jewish organizations as well as Republican presidential candidates immediately blasted the Obama administration for what they said was an attempt to blame Israel for European anti-Semitism. The White House issued a statement highlighting the president’s commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, and Ambassador Gutman, who is Jewish and a son of a Holocaust survivor, expressed his regret over what he called a misinterpretation of his comments.
Several American scholars have been warning in recent years that gradual shifts in Israeli society — toward more religious and less democratic values — could endanger the future of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. A paper published by Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies pointed to such a “value gap” as the main trend line threatening America’s basic friendship with the Jewish state.
Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, one of the largest groups supporting progressive NGOs in Israel, said Clinton’s remarks reflect growing unrest in the United States over actions taken by the Israeli government to limit civil society discourse. “Everyone should see it as a five-alarm fire,” Sokatch said. “If Israel drifts away from values of Western democracy, then change to relations with the U.S. will be inevitable.”
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli envoy to Washington, chose to shoot back at America. “On many issues we are better than the U.S.,” Shoval said. While expressing his own objection to recent actions taken in Israel to limit women’s rights, Shoval touted the political independence of the Israeli legal system, Israel’s rejection of capital punishment and the country’s liberal abortion laws. “Most Americans don’t doubt the shared values with Israel,” he concluded.
Israel’s image in the United States as an open and democratic society is still strong and will remain so, Miller said. Americans understand the challenges facing the young Israeli democracy, he argued, and the fact that Arab countries surrounding Israel behave “much worse.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org