Time for U.S. to Stop Shielding Israel

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

We are now set for a third term for Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu. And, although Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu coalition seems to have underperformed expectations, a plurality of the vote will allow him to once again lead Israel’s government.

But even a somewhat moderated Netanyahu government will continue to advance radical positions that put regional and global security in danger. The question, then, is how the United States can best push another right-wing administration to behave in accordance with the principles of the international security system – and its own national interests.

Over the past two Netanyahu terms, the international community, and the United States in particular, adopted an approach based on accommodation when dealing with the Netanyahu government. The hope was that this approach would contain the risks this extremist government posed to international security. Yet just as that strategy did not work then, it will not work now. The United States must therefore now take a harder line with Israel’s coming government – it must switch from a strategy of accommodation to one of confrontation, and it should start by letting fall its diplomatic shield.

In order to protect Israel from international pressure, the United States has repeatedly vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions that criticize Israeli government actions – including resolutions on settlement construction that the United States itself publicly rejects. In return, Netanyahu has publicly flouted American priorities. Europe has also accommodated the Netanyahu government. In exchange, Netanyahu refused a request from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his strongest European ally, to temporarily freeze settlement construction. The negotiating “Quartet,” meanwhile, has yielded to the Israeli government’s position since its inception. The Quartet – made up of the United States, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations – was repaid in last January’s Amman talks. It requested that each negotiating party submit in writing its vision for final status talks; while the Palestinians complied, Netanyahu declined, dealing the Quartet a humiliating defeat.

This international forbearance has tipped the already skewed balance of power between Israel and the Palestinians and essentially left Israel with no incentive to negotiate or compromise. A Netanyahu-led Israel whose military, economic, and now diplomatic power dwarfs that of the Palestinians no longer sees any reason to be part of a sustainable solution.

Continuing to enable the latest iteration of the Netanyahu government threatens a host of dangerous, unpredictable consequences. Netanyahu’s plans to continue settlement expansion will effectively put an end to peace efforts in the region. Just Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that Israel’s settlement policy “will make a two-state solution impossible.” Now, a further deterioration of peace prospects could produce the long-overdue “Palestinian Spring.” We may see the first stirrings of this sort of mass, nonviolent protest in Bab al-Shams and Bab al-Karama – two tent cities that have sprung up to obstruct Israeli expansion plans in the occupied West Bank. More dangerously, though, settlement growth will likely lead to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, something the United States has gone to great lengths to protect and support. The vacuum left by the Authority’s implosion could lead to a surge of violence, which may seem to many Palestinians like their only legitimate alternative. The same void would effectively invalidate the Quartet’s reason for existence – and even require direct international intervention to restore order. And all this is to say nothing of the possibility Netanyahu could drag the United States into a new region-spanning war with Iran, just as America is winding down its long, costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, there is now reason to think that Israel’s ironclad international support may be changing. Europe made an obvious and historic shift in its diplomacy when its member states either voted yes or abstained in the recent United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood. President Obama’s nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, coupled with his refusal to withdraw the nomination in the face of sharp opposition, also suggests a possible policy evolution. Obama has entered his second term with a freer hand on foreign policy. Hagel’s anti-war positions and his openness to dialogue with Iran imply that Obama may be willing to challenge Netanyahu at some point; if so, he will have European and international backing.

The Obama administration has leverage, and it should use it. Further accommodation of Netanyahu and his right wing policies will only exacerbate the already complicated and difficult issues underlying the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The United States has to draw the line sometime – and that time should be now. It can start by practicing more assertive diplomacy, namely by refusing to provide diplomatic cover for dangerous, unproductive moves – settlement expansion is only one example. If Netanyahu wants to continue on this road, he must understand that he’ll have to do so alone. The American veto policy of unconditional support for illegal Israeli practices must end, and, like the Europeans, the Obama administration must let Benjamin Netanyahu face the consequences of his own policies.

By letting slip its diplomatic shield, the United States can leave behind a failed policy of accommodation. In doing so, it can once again provide hope for a just, sustainable solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and at the same time protect its national interests in the Middle East.