Netanyahu’s odd ‘American values’ gambit


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend told “Face the Nation” that the Obama administration’s slam on his government for its Jerusalem building start was “against American values.”

I’ll leave to others the arguments about the political wisdom of the leader of another country instructing American presidents about American values. What struck me as odd was the diplomatic can of worms this opens.

Does Netanyahu really want U.S. administrations to base their assessments of Israeli actions on U.S. values?

There’s a lot that Israel does that goes “against American values,” and for a simple reason: Israel is not America, and when challenged on these issues, Israeli officials will make that point emphatically.

The Knesset in 2011 passed a law allowing local authorities to discriminate on the basis of “incompatibility with the social-cultural fabric” — a locution that would cause many American necks to bristle with American hairs standing on end.

Then there are the laws that deny permanent resident status to West Bank Palestinians who are married to Israelis. There is, among Israel’s Jews, the Orthodox hegemony over marriage and other civil actions. There is Israel’s discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans seeking non-visa entry into Israel.

On the more left-wing end of the “values” spectrum, Israeli government health insurance pays for abortions, whereas there are tough restrictions on abortion coverage in an increasing number of states. And Israel recognized same-sex domestic partnerships — and allowed gays to serve openly in the military — long before such policies were deemed acceptable in the United States.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s insistence in the same interview that “Arabs in East Jerusalem, Palestinians, buy apartments, thousands of them in the Jewish neighborhoods in West Jerusalem, nobody says you can’t do it” is mistaken.

Daniel Seidemann, the founder of Terrestrial Jerusalem — one of the groups that reported on the building expansion that is fueling Netanyahu-Obama tension — tells me that the vast majority of the 3,400 Palestinians who live in apartments in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods rent, as opposed to own. They cannot afford to live in Palestinian neighborhoods because Israel has not granted a legal permit to build in these areas since the 1970s; and the Jewish neighborhoods they live in are the new ones built beyond the 1967 line.

As for the area that much of the world (including Israelis) thinks of as “West Jerusalem” — the area west of the 1967 line — Seidemann says that he has known of only two Palestinians who live there “in my 45 years of living in Jerusalem and my 25 years of working” tracking growth in the city. “I will buy the prime minister a meal at the kosher restaurant of his choosing for every 10 Palestinians he finds in West Jerusalem,” Seidemann said.

The thing is, the routine rejoinder to any American complaint about a disparity in “values” would be a polite MYOB. Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia (that’s off the top of my head) all have or have had in the post-war era discriminatory citizenship laws, and somehow their alliances with the United States nonetheless flourished.

This is because the foremost consideration in foreign policy is interests, not values. It has been in the the perceived interests of successive U.S. governments to arm Israel and defend it in international forums, and these governments have also had an interest in not prejudicing the final status of Jerusalem until the sides work out a peace deal. Shared “values” may help inform these interests, but they are not the only consideration. Other considerations may include preserving regional stability, maintaining U.S. influence, the U.S. economy, etc.

There’s a cottage industry of Israel-bashers who revel in the the supposed disparity between American and Israeli “values” and who insist this must be the foremost consideration in U.S.-Israel relations, while not applying the same consideration to virtually any other bilateral relationship.

Netanyahu, bizarrely, appears to agree with them.

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