Some small though notable changes in U.S. policy towards Israel

In four weeks, the Obama administration has demonstrated a willingness to show more objectivity and balance towards Israel than Bush showed in eight years.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published February 25, 2009 1:05PM (EST)

This is a mildly encouraging report, from Haaretz:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has relayed messages to Israel in the past week expressing anger at obstacles Israel is placing to the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip. A leading political source in Jerusalem noted that senior Clinton aides have made it clear that the matter will be central to Clinton's planned visit to Israel next Tuesday.

Ahead of Clinton's visit, special U.S. envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell is expected to issue a sharply worded protest on the same matter when he arrives here Thursday.

"Israel is not making enough effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza," senior U.S. officials told Israeli counterparts last week, and reiterated Washington's view by saying that "the U.S. expects Israel to meet its commitments on this matter."

As many Obama/Clinton cynics will be quick to point out (reasonably so), this is a relatively confined objection and only an incremental change in tone, but it's the kind of divergence between the U.S. and Israel that would have been inconceivable during the Bush administration.  What is vital, as a preliminary matter, is that the U.S. no longer blindly accept and endorse actions from Israel that are contrary to American interests.  Changes of this sort, if they're going to happen at all, are only going to happen gradually and incrementally. 

Someone wanted these American criticisms of Israel to be publicized.  And the accusations -- that Israel is purposely blocking humanitarian aid to Gaza and "angering" the U.S. by doing so -- are relatively serious, both in tone and content.  As I've noted before, there are two competing theories about why Hillary Clinton agreed to leave her Senate seat and become Secretary of State:  because (a) she was tempted by the opportunity to claim the historic legacy of forging a Middle East peace agreement (which will unquestionably require substantially more American pressure on, and opposition to, Israeli actions and is probably something that only someone with a past record of solid AIPAC credentials (as she has) can do), or (b) she wants to use that position to impose her hawkish views on American foreign policy. 

Though I personally find (a) more likely, only time will tell which of those is true.  Bolstering option (a) is that it's hard to believe that George Mitchell was willing to take on this assignment unless he has the authority to apply the pressure on Israel which is an absolute pre-requisite for any hope of success.  For now, those who desire a serious change in U.S. policy towards Israel should welcome any signs -- even limited and preliminary ones -- that the U.S. is willing to forcefully and, when necessary, publicly oppose and condemn Israeli actions (as we do with all other foreign countries).

It's also worth noting that the Obama administration's $900 million aid package to help re-build Gaza is itself politically risky.  It's true that there's something simultaneously ironic, perverse and just about the aid package:  Israel uses American weapons, massive amounts of American money and America's diplomatic cover to devastate Gazan society, and then the U.S. bears the cost of repairing the damage wreaked by Israel and re-building Gaza.  Nonetheless, that seems to be the least we can do (as J Street said in praising Obama's aid package, "it is only a first step").

But that aid package is prompting exactly the sort of drooling, rabid "terrorist-sympathizing" and "anti-Israel" accusations that one would expect.  One newly elected GOP Congressman thundered via Twitter about the aid package:  "This is outrageous!  Wrong on so many levels."  National Review's Muslim-obsessed uber-extremist Andrew McCarthy accused Obama of "send[ing] $900M from the mint's busy printing press to Hamas" and "funding our enemies" (do Palestinians harbor ambitions to conquer the U.S. and rule us by caliphate?).  In fact, the American aid package will be funneled to Gazans through either U.N. agencies or the Palestinian Authority, not to Hamas -- but still, there's plenty more of that bile in exactly the places one would expect to find it and the Obama administration was willing to incur it.

There is clearly a change in tenor already with these matters.  Whether that translates into substantive changes in the U.S. approach toward Israel remains to be seen.  But these first signs are mildly encouraging.

Glenn Greenwald

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