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Opinion

Can Obama stand up to Israel?

It won't be easy, but President Obama must hold Israel to account, both for the two-state solution and the safety of US troops around the world.

By Helena Cobban / November 24, 2009



Washington

President Obama urgently needs to distance Washington from the provocative – and illegal – actions the Israeli government has been undertaking in Jerusalem.

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He needs to do this to save the two-state solution that he supports between Israelis and Palestinians. He needs to do it, too, because it will help protect US troops around the world. Jerusalem is a core concern for many of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and with US forces now facing tense situations in several majority-Muslim countries, Washington has a stronger need than ever to keep the goodwill of the peoples of those lands.

This is one of the main findings from a study-tour of the region I co-led earlier this month. In Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and the West Bank, strongly pro-US leaders underlined to us the importance of Jerusalem to their own political fortunes and those of other American allies throughout the Muslim world.

Israel took control of the eastern portion of Jerusalem, including the historic, walled "Old City," in the 1967 war. Since then, Israeli governments have invested heavily in implanting Jewish settlers into East Jerusalem, while squeezing out the area's indigenous Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians.

In recent months this campaign of ethnic transformation has intensified. On Nov. 16, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans for the construction of 900 new housing units in the southeast settlement of Gilo. He reportedly did this right after Mr. Obama's special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, had pleaded with him not to. But aside from expressing "dismay," have we seen any visible consequences from Washington? Not yet.

Today, Jerusalem is a tinderbox. If it ignites, American interests will be at risk, because Washington is seen as acquiescing in Israel's harmful actions there.

In decades past, when policy differences arose between Israel and the United States, many of Israel's supporters argued that it was on the front line against terrorism, so Americans should not second-guess its judgments or policies.

That was never a wholly convincing argument. But now, the situation has turned quite around. Today, it is American men and women who are on the front lines and it is their – and our – interests that are most at risk.

By not holding Israel to account, Washington is needlessly – and recklessly – offending hundreds of millions of Muslims on whose goodwill our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere depend.

While in Jerusalem, we saw Israel's destructive policies firsthand. The Jewish state is:

•Expanding the large Israeli-only settlements that ring the city to the east, north, and south.

•Supporting smaller settler "outposts" in the heart of Jerusalem's remaining Palestinian enclaves.

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