Special Relationship Vs. Special Privileging

Observing the tension between the U.S. and Israel over the issue of settlements over the last few months, and the debate here in the U.S. over the wisdom of Obama’s approach, a real point of division between the conservative pro-Israel community and the progressive pro-Israel community, in which I include myself, is that the former seem to believe that the U.S.-Israel special relationship, in addition to involving close economic, cultural and military ties, should also require the special privileging of Israeli national-historical claims over Palestinian claims.

The discord over Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem has revealed this divide pretty starkly. To state the obvious, Jerusalem is a hugely sensitive issue. Both Israelis and Palestinians have strong historical ties to the city, and both claim it as their capital. Many Israelis have memories of when Jews were denied access to their holy sites by the 1948–1967 Jordanian occupation, and understandably react strongly against any hint that the city might again be divided.

In this article in the Jewish Week describing how Netanyahu is appealing to the American Jewish community to oppose the U.S. pressure on Jerusalem settlements, the ADL’s Abe Foxman, while acknowledging that Obama’s approach is “not a departure, policy-wise,” said:

What troubles many in the Jewish community isn’t that the U.S. is raising the issue of settlements, but that it looks like Washington is negotiating with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians — and that part of that involves the central issue of Jerusalem. So in a way, it looks like the U.S. is basically predetermining final-status issues in those negotiations.

It’s pretty clear that Israel is actually the party who, by continuing to build up the Jewish presence in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods while tightly constraining Arab growth, is trying to predetermine the final status of Jerusalem. The U.S. is simply asking Israel to stop this until Jerusalem’s status can be decided through negotiations — which has been U.S. policy since 1967, and is the reason why the U.S. Embassy remains in Tel Aviv. Foxman’s claim really doesn’t make much sense unless one is working from the assumption that treating Israeli and Palestinian claims equally is inherently unfair to Israel.


But, as President Obama made clear in his Cairo speech, he does treat Israeli and Palestinian claims equally. This was hugely significant, something that has been recognized in the Middle East far more than here in the U.S. By holding up Palestinian nationalism as co-equal with Israeli nationalism and treating Palestinians as deserving of statehood in their own right, not merely as some sort of consolation prize or as a secondary plot in a Jewish national redemption story, Obama became the first president to really explicitly recognize “two states for two peoples” as more than just a slogan.

As significant a shift as this was, though, it doesn’t necessarily means that the U.S.-Israel relationship must become weaker, or any less special, and I don’t think it should. If anything, that outcome would be a result of continuing Israeli intransigence on necessary steps toward two states, such as ceasing building on land it has previously committed to negotiating over. I do think, however, that President Obama could do a better job communicating this distinction to the American and Israeli people.