The diplomatic quarrel between the United States and Israel that broke out over East Jerusalem settlements will amount to little and change even less. Vice President Joe Biden was surprised when, during a state visit, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that it would proceed with new settlement construction. But ever since the Obama administration climbed down from its call for a settlement freeze last year, the Netanyahu government has understood that it can ride out rough patches with Washington while continuing to pursue its objectives.
Despite dire warnings that the embarrassment of a visiting U.S. vice president will damage U.S.-Israel relations, nothing substantive will follow recent displays of indignation by Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The combination of blunt words and inaction invites the worst of all consequences for the Obama administration, which will be attacked by hawks for “undermining” an ally, mocked by foreign policy realists for ineptitude, and derided by doves for caving in the face of Israeli intransigence. As for the Israelis, the only thing Netanyahu’s ministers will likely do differently next time is to exercise more discretion when thumbing their noses at President Obama.
The Netanyahu government’s announcement of new settlement construction in East Jerusalem was provocative in its timing and substance. But it cannot be stressed too much that the Israeli government sees nothing wrong in what it is doing. The policy is not the work of a rogue minister from an ultra-Orthodox party, but an expression of the views of the governing coalition. If Netanyahu was blindsided by the announcement, as he claims, he was hardly unaware of the policy that produced it. And since the Obama administration had already shown that it has no interest in seriously challenging Israeli settlements, Netanyahu has no incentive to make significant concessions, which could inspire domestic backlash or even the collapse of his government.
Despite the perceived insult to Biden and the U.S., in a speech at Tel Aviv University the vice president reaffirmed the “total, absolute, and unvarnished” commitment of the U.S. to Israel. It is this unqualified support that allows Netanyahu to ignore the administration’s demands. Washington has opposed settlement expansion for decades, but no administration has seriously penalized Israel for blithely ignoring U.S. wishes—because even proposing such a penalty is unacceptable in U.S. politics.
Dependence of one state upon another creates perverse incentives for both. The unconditional backing of one side in a conflict does not encourage compromise but devotion to maximalist positions. Likewise, if a patron receives no reciprocity for its support, only the client state benefits from the relationship, creating an increasingly untenable situation for the patron. Maximalist demands backed by a patron’s support tend to be detrimental even to the client state in the long run—because they shield the client from the consequences of its actions.
While successive Israeli governments have taken advantage of the relationship with the U.S., this is ultimately not Israel’s fault. Were our positions reversed, Americans would do the same. And while it may feel satisfying to blame Netanyahu’s government or the religious parties in his coalition for the latest incident, the U.S.’s predicament is largely of its own making.
At one point during his speech, Biden said that America “has no better friend in the community of nations than Israel.” In fact, many U.S. allies have been far more reliable over the years. Indeed, this exaggerated claim about Israel is made precisely to conceal how little reciprocity Israel shows its benefactor. Israel’s dependence on the many forms of U.S. aid ought to make it one of the most easily influenced and accommodating of allies, but the certainty that the aid will never cease, and that no administration will risk accusations that it has “abandoned” Israel, has had the opposite effect.
Washington created the conditions for its own embarrassment by creating a bilateral relationship defined by dependence and warped by unaccountability. If it is unwilling to place conditions on the support it provides to Israel, and unwilling to enforce them when it does, Washington will continue to find its pronouncements ignored and its efforts in the Near East frustrated.