The White House is understandably livid with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in a desperate bid to retain power, won Israel's election last week by laying bare the racism and colonialism at the heart of Israel's policies toward Palestinians. To pander to an increasingly nationalist and intolerant voter base, Netanyahu admitted that Israel's colonization of Palestinian land is designed to constrict Palestinian growth, renounced his lukewarm support for Palestinian statehood and engaged in race-baiting against Israel's Palestinian citizens.
The Obama administration is absolutely correct that now is the time to "reassess" U.S.-Israeli relations now that the Israeli prime minister has slammed the door shut on Palestinian statehood, the cornerstone of U.S. policy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue for the past 15 years. And President Obama is fully justified in discounting Netanyahu's feeble attempts to walk back his renunciation of Palestinian statehood.
The current nadir in U.S.-Israeli relations is reminiscent of another era in which Israel defied U.S. policy goals and called into question its commitment to the U.S.-backed "peace process." Forty years ago, Israel's foot-dragging on then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's efforts to broker a second disengagement of Israeli forces in the occupied Egyptian Sinai Peninsula led President Ford to similarly reassess U.S.-Israeli relations. The Ford administration put real teeth into its reassessment by postponing the delivery of weapons to Israel and deferring consideration of economic aid. This tangible pressure on Israel worked, bringing it back to the table and eventually paving the way for complete Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory.
To date, the Obama administration has not publicly expressed any willingness to be as bold as Ford, bending over backwards to reiterate the inviolability of U.S. military aid to Israel, which has climbed to a record $3.1 billion annually during the president's tenure even as Netanyahu has repeatedly humiliated the president and frustrated his policy goals.
Instead, speculation about the Obama administration's likely punitive measures has focused on the possibility of withdrawing the traditional U.S. veto of actions in the U.N. Security Council critical of Israel. Such resolutions could include condemnation of Israel's ongoing, illegal colonization of occupied Palestinian territory or establishing the parameters for a two-state resolution. Neither resolution, however, would be more than symbolic and actually affect Israel's actions, unless coupled with more palpable U.S. pressure.
Here are five steps the Obama administration can take to show that it is serious about this reassessment.
1. Clog the arms pipeline. Even though Congress will appropriate more military aid for Israel in this year's budget, there is a myriad of ways in which the Defense and State Departments can delay, if not completely suspend, the signing of contracts and the actual delivery of weapons.
2. Report on Israel's violations of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA). Under the AECA, countries receiving U.S. military aid can only use weapons for legitimate self-defense and internal security. Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians — the vast majority of whom were civilians — last summer, oftentimes with U.S. weapons such as F-16 fighter jets and Hellfire missiles. The Obama administration should send a report to Congress documenting these human rights abuses and suspend future deliveries of specific weapons systems as outlined in the AECA.
3. Sanction Israel under the "Leahy Law." Under the Leahy Law, specific units of militaries which commit human rights abuses are ineligible to receive U.S. training and weapons. In addition, individuals who commit human rights abuses are denied U.S. visas. While there is some evidence that high-ranking Israeli military officials have recently been denied U.S. visas, the State Department's reporting on the implementation of Leahy Law sanctions is opaque. More extensive and public sanctioning of Israel under this law is warranted.
4. Declare Israeli settlements a national emergency. Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has broad and unilateral powers to declare an emergency in response to a foreign policy crisis. By designating Israeli settlements as an emergency, the Obama administration could regulate, or even prohibit, any transaction in foreign exchange that will directly or indirectly contribute to the expansion of Israeli settlements.
5. Shut down "charitable" funding of Israeli settlements. Dozens of organizations currently recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as 501(c)(3) nonprofits funnel tens of millions of dollars to Israeli settlements every year. There is nothing charitable about dispossessing Palestinians from their land. IRS guidelines do not allow for the funding of illegal activities, which Israeli settlements are according to U.S. policy and international law.
After more than six years of offering Israel more and more carrots only to be repeatedly snubbed, it is long overdue for the Obama administration to brandish the proverbial stick.
Ruebner is the policy director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation and author of Shattered Hopes: Obama's Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace.