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.

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

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.

•Completing the 24-foot-high Separation Wall that encloses many Palestinian portions of the city and slices through the center of others.

•Delegating responsibility for archaeological excavations in sensitive areas to settler organizations that have worked feverishly – and quite unscientifically – to push tunnels right under the historic "Muslim Quarter" of the walled Old City.

•Making it almost impossible for the city's Palestinians to expand their housing stock, and conducting regular demolitions of Palestinian housing it deems "illegal."

All these Israeli actions are themselves illegal under international law, since Israel controls East Jerusalem and the surrounding West Bank only as a military occupying power, not a rightful sovereign government.

Imagine if, when the US military occupied Baghdad after 2003, Washington had taken steps like these! Fortunately, it didn't. Instead, it steadily delegated authority back to Iraqis themselves.

The US is far and away Israel's biggest external supporter. The aid America gives to her allies should not be unconditional but used to uphold US interests. In the Middle East, that means US dollars and diplomacy should support a fair and sustainable peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the rule of law in an otherwise chaotic world.

It's true that over the years many Americans have become persuaded that Greater Jerusalem has been "unified," that it all belongs to Israel, and indeed is "Israel's eternal capital."

The rest of the world – and international law – doesn't agree. What people in other countries see is Israel thumbing its nose at international law as it works to transform the city's ethnic composition.

This is disastrous for Washington's peace diplomacy, which has always been based on the principle that the city's final disposition should be negotiated, rather than unilaterally determined through the creation of new facts on the ground.

In his landmark Cairo speech to Muslims in June, Obama said he would "personally pursue" a two-state solution "with all the patience and dedication that the task requires." Today, Obama may feel that the political price of standing up to Israel – which few US presidents have done – is too high. It is high – but the risk that continued acquiescence to Israel's policies in Jerusalem poses to American lives (and those of Palestinians and Israelis) is now even higher. This is Obama's chance to set a new, just course for the Middle East on a firmly pro-American basis.

He can do this by linking US aid to Israel to its compliance with international law in the city, by supporting action by the UN Security Council to uphold international standards there, and in other ways.

The 250,000 remaining Palestinians of Jerusalem desperately need this action. So does Obama's peace diplomacy.

And so, too, do the 200,000-plus US service members deployed today in tense, majority-Muslim lands.

Helena Cobban, a longtime correspondent and columnist for the Monitor, was recently appointed executive director of the Washington-based Council for the National Interest.

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