Did White House and State Department officials meet this fall to discuss ways to dissuade Israel from settlement building in areas considered for a future Palestinian state?
According to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, anonymous senior Israeli officials, including one claiming to have been briefed on the meeting by American officials, said that the “possibility of taking active measures against settlements” was discussed at the classified meeting, and that such discussions began shortly after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last meeting in the White House in early October.
“Active measures” is widely considered to mean sanctions. If the reports are true, it could mark yet another low point in the relationship between Israel and the United States. Sanctions do not come without risk. Even though President Barack Obama could take steps unilaterally, he would likely face one of the harshest backlashes from Congress to date toward his policies.
Following the revelations, White House and State Department spokespeople evaded answering media questions about the meeting.
On Dec. 8, five days after the story broke, the White House denied that there had been any discussion of sanctions. Spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that the allegations were “completely unfounded and without merit.”
He also repeated the administration’s position against settlement construction, held by every American administration since President Jimmy Carter.
“We believe that those actions are counterproductive, that they don’t serve to facilitate the kind of trust that we believe is necessary for both sides to try to hammer out their differences in a way that is consistent with the national security concerns of the Israeli people and with the broader aspirations of the Palestinian people,” Earnest said.
The administration’s perceived ambiguity led to a harsh rebuke in the form of a letter to the president from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), which was signed by 47 members of Congress on Dec. 5.
“While it is our hope that these reports are untrue, the fact that your Administration has failed to denounce or clarify them is deeply troubling,” Meadows wrote, adding that “unilaterally imposed sanctions against Israel is not only unwise, but is extremely worrisome.
“Further, at no point in time has Congress given the Administration the authority to sanction Israel. In fact, Congress has continued to show its unwavering support for Israel and has recently taken steps to increase our economic and military cooperation. At a time when you have requested an additional seven months to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, any attempts to undermine the U.S.’s support of Israel will only further diminish the Administration’s ability to get Congressional support for any potential agreement with Iran.”
Although lawmakers on Capitol Hill are nearly unanimous in their unconditional support for Israel, public opinion both in the United States and in traditionally pro-Israel nations abroad might be waning.
In a new poll conducted by the University of Maryland Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, led by professor Shibley Telhami, titled “American Public Attitudes Toward the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” 63 percent of respondents opposed continued Israeli settlement building, with 39 percent also supporting the imposition of sanctions and other measures against Israel.
“I think it illustrates the degree to which the Israeli government has not made the case for settlements in this country, and I think you’d probably find a similar number in Israel who feel the same way about settlements,” said Alan Ronkin, regional director of the Washington, D.C., office of the American Jewish Committee.
Yet, if the administration did decide to use harsh tactics to pressure the Israeli government to stop settlement building, Ronkin said that he believes there would be a strong reaction from the American Jewish community.
“I think the organized Jewish community would – depending on what was discussed – intervene to try to head these things off at the pass. Whether it would be public, whether it be in private, it really would depend,” he said. “If you had the secretary of state going on television saying, ‘Here’s the White House phone number, call us when you’re serious for peace’ like [former Secretary of State] James Baker did, you’d see a pretty strong and vociferous reaction from the Jewish community. I don’t think we’ll ever see that from Secretary John Kerry.”
Meanwhile, in early December, lawmakers from the British Labour Party proposed and argued for legislation creating sanctions and an arms embargo against Israel in response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. This occurred shortly after the House of Commons agreed to a nonbinding resolution to recognized Palestine as a state, according to JTA.
The Palestinian Authority has also announced that it will present a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council this weekend, asking to be recognized as a state based on 1967 borders. The council is scheduled to vote on this resolution next Wednesday.
With this troubling backdrop, Netanyahu has traveled to Paris to meet with Secretary Kerry, with the goal of securing a commitment that the United States would veto this and other unilateral Palestinian recognition efforts in the U.N.
Despite fears that Kerry and the administration would penalize Israel at the U.N. – though most believe those measures would fall short of completely abandoning Israel – many analysts conclude it is unlikely that the United States would make a significant break from its longstanding support.
A Democratic operative and former Capitol Hill staffer accepted the administration’s denial – questioning the unsubstantiated manner in which the news was release.
“Of course it was never considered to sanction Israel,” the former staffer said. “There is no way that anyone in this administration would ever consider something like that, just like no one in any administration since George H.W. Bush would have even thought of the idea. It was a totally unsourced report, and it was completely denied.”
The former staffer attributed the White House’s early dodging of questions as a way to avoid giving it any credence.
“You can’t deny every single report that is totally unfounded and unverified,” the former staffer said. “Just because some outlet reports something doesn’t mean you have to deny it if it’s totally unfair from an undisclosed source.”
[email protected] @dmitriyshapiro