For a new U.S. administration that wants to avoid clashes with the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups, this week presented two challenges that could dash those hopes.
Saturday’s administration decision to attend preliminary consultations for the World Conference Against Racism, a follow-up to the controversial Israel-bashing Durban conference on racism in 2001, has divided Jewish groups, with some arguing that the administration’s plan to steer the conference away from its anti-Israel focus is doomed from the outset, others saying it should be given a chance.
And Monday’s announcement that the Israeli government has approved expanding the West Bank settlement at Efrat could force an administration determined to restore its image in the Arab world and restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to confront the explosive settlement issue Jewish Theological Seminary earlier than it had hoped.
“It’s a sock in the face of the new Obama administration,” said Seymour Reich, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Even if Efrat is ultimately brought inside Israel’s borders, this is an unfortunate and unnecessary step.”
The Israeli announcement may have been timed to test the new Obama administration on an issue widely expected to be a flash point for any new U.S.-Israel friction in the Obama era, he said. Other observers said the announcement may have been timed to take advantage of the new administration’s preoccupation with a plummeting economy.
While the potential for differences over Durban II and settlements may have surged, few observers expect outright clashes — in part because the new administration is reaching out to Jewish leaders and explain its decisions.
That outreach included a Monday conference call in which White House officials explained their rationale for the Durban II decision.
“The outreach on Durban has been very good,” said an official with a Jewish organization who was not authorized to speak to the media. “If that’s the model they plan to use in dealing with Jewish groups, it may help defuse any tension if and when they decide to speak out on settlements.”
The decision to send a delegation to preliminary meetings for the Durban Review Conference, which will be held in Geneva in April, did not surprise Jewish leaders, but it disappointed some. In private meetings with Jewish leaders and public statements, the administration insisted its goal is to thwart the expected anti-Israel focus on the April gathering and restore the conference to its original function — combating racism and xenophobia around the world. Preliminary documents point to a continuing effort to single out Israel for criticism and other controversial elements, including a proposal by Islamic states to make “defamation of religion” a crime under international law.
The U.S. decision, which defied recommendations by groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, is also meant to signal a sharp break with the “my way or the highway” approach the Obama team believes defined Bush administration diplomacy.
“As you know, it’s been some time since we engaged,” said acting deputy State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid on Tuesday. “If you are not engaged, you don’t have a voice. … We are there looking at the process. We wanted to put forward our views and see if there was some way that we could help make the document a better document than it appears that it’s going to be. That does not mean, however, that we will take part in future meetings, or indeed, in the conference itself.”
In a conference call with Jewish leaders on Monday, several top White House and National Security Council officials made the same point.
Analysts said that the decision represents a bold but potentially risky move that will test a brand-new administration’s ability to play in the treacherous diplomatic big leagues.
Israeli political scientist Gerald Steinberg, writing in the Jerusalem Post, said that “beyond the specific results in this case, the results will set the tone for relations with Iran, the challenge of radical Islam, chances for progress in George Mitchell’s peace efforts, and the policy based on engagement and dialogue.”
Turning around the Durban II agenda would represent a major success and set the stage for restoring U.S. influence and values, he wrote.
But if Washington “hesitates and compromises,” it could “amplify” the negative impact of the 2001 conference, he said, and contribute to the effort to isolate Israel.
Most Jewish leaders reacted cautiously.
“Given President Obama’s outlook, this decision was understandable,” said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris. “I view this initial foray in Geneva as exploratory; we’ll have to wait and see what the delegation concludes and recommends as the next step.”
Harris, in the middle of a round of meeting with European leaders, said conditions have changed dramatically since the 2001 debacle.
“I was at a meeting with the Italian foreign minister last night, and Durban II was among his topics,” he said. “He was very clear in saying that if certain things went wrong, Italy would not hesitate to withdraw. Others in the European community have been just as clear.”
The danger in the U.S. decision to send a delegation to the preliminary conference, he said, is that Washington could get “drawn in” by nominal improvements in the draft of conference documents, only to attend a conference at Geneva that reprises the Durban II anti-Israel themes.
“There’s the potential for a bait-and-switch tactic,” he said. “We have to remember that what’s driving this process are countries like Iran, Libya, Cuba and others.”
Still, he said, there is a possibility Washington could succeed in changing the tone and content of the April meeting.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman was more dubious, arguing that the Durban process is already irredeemable.
“Nothing in all the pre-meetings indicates this will be less of an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic circus than the first conference,” he said.
But he said he doubts the administration and the pro-Israel community will clash openly over the issue.
“I understand the new administration has a need to reach out,” he said. “I understand why they felt they needed to send a delegation. But they could have saved money and asked us first.”
Still, he said it was a “very positive sign that they reached out to the Jewish community in the way they did.”
But all that amity could evaporate if the April conference turns into a repeat of the 2001 meeting, with U.S. participation providing the stamp of international legitimacy to a session that focuses almost entirely on Israel.
Complicating matters for the administration is Israel’s ambivalent response. It has not formally asked Washington to boycott the meetings, and there is speculation that some Israeli officials are hoping U.S. participation can turn the conference away from its Israel-bashing course.
“Israel would be very leery of telling the U.S. government not to go; it’s not their place to say that,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). And that silence “has made it easier for the administration to go.”
But, Bryen insisted, it will be a wasted exercise.
“You can’t come to a conference that’s being driven by an ideological mindset, and expect a change in that mindset,” she said.
Harder to finesse could be the persistent diplomatic irritation over Israeli settlement policy — which could turn into an open sore after this week’s announcement of plans to expand the settlement of Efrat by more than 2,500 homes.
M.J. Rosenberg, Washington director for the Israel Policy Forum (IPF), said the timing of the announcement — by a lame-duck Israeli government, in the first 100 days of the new U.S. administration — was “intended to test Obama and [special Mideast envoy George] Mitchell’s will. Both have made it so clear what their view of settlements is that the timing of this announcement can’t be an accident. The Israel government wants to see how far it can go.”
The fact that Efrat is among the settlement blocs expected to be incorporated into Israel after any agreement with the Palestinians will make it harder for the Obama administration to craft a response, he said.
Rosenberg said that a sharp administration response to the settlement announcement might stir up criticism and political pressure from major pro-Israel groups, but that reaction would not reflect the views of most American Jews.
“If they speak out, it will demonstrate how sophisticated this new administration is about the Jewish community,” he said.
Robert O. Freedman, a Johns Hopkins international relations scholar, said he does not expect a serious confrontation over the issue, in part because “the administration is very much bogged down with the economy. That’s probably why the Israelis did what they did; get it down now, while the new administration is worrying about stimulus plans.”
And increasingly, he said, Obama administration officials understand that no real peace progress is likely while the Palestinian leadership remains divided between Fatah and Hamas.
“If there is no prospect for renewed negotiations, the advocates of settlement building will do more,” he said. “With Obama preoccupied with domestic issues, they will try to take advantage of it. But it’s not a full slap across the face; it’s more like a challenge.”