Memo to Media: Israeli Settlement Expansion Is Not All About the United States

John Kerry.(Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv / Flickr)Israel’s decision to wait until Secretary of State John Kerry left the region before announcing it will pursue settlement expansion in the West Bank grabbed the headlines. It’s the existence of the settlements, not the timing of the announcement, which should concern the media.

The Israeli government, in its boundless benevolence, has decided to wait until Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the region before officially announcing plans to pursue more illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank. “We will respect John Kerry and not act to spite him,” an anonymous Israeli official told The New York Times last week. The precise timing of Israel’s announcements of imperialist intent has become its own little phenomenon in recent years; the Obama administration reportedly was furious when, in 2010, Israel announced new building plans while Vice President Joe Biden was visiting the country. Media outlets such as the Times report breathlessly on this diplomatic drama; the substance of what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is now almost secondary to the crucial point of whether it is announced on Day X or Day Y and, accordingly, whether or not any high-ranking American officials’ feelings are hurt.

It would be difficult to identify another matter that more clearly illustrates the news media’s essential superficiality and its subtle allegiance to a framework in which the concerns of the US and Israeli governments distinctly outweigh those of the Palestinians. In a serious media culture, coverage of the “timing” of these announcements and the delicate sensibilities of US officials would be limited to a sentence or two in broader news reports. This recent phony gesture of goodwill by the Netanyahu government, though, was apparently deserving of a full article, landing on Page A6 of the January 2, 2014, edition of The New York Times.

Consider the title of a July 2012 Times editorial on Israeli settlements and how they tangibly harm the prospects for peace: “Wrong Time for New Settlements” – which directly implies that there is a “right” time for new settlements, that some times are better than others. This kind of twisted analysis and fraudulent dissent evokes memories of “opposition” to the criminally insane American invasion of Iraq, which was based not on principle but, rather, on the grounds that it was an unfortunate geopolitical “mistake” and “poor strategy” given the demands of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. At issue here is a policy of relentless Jewish expansion into Palestinian land, which most of the world considers illegal and which continues to stand as the central obstacle to any realistic drive for peace. Everything else is noise.

Israel’s brutal occupation of the West Bank soon will reach its 50th year. By now, even casual followers of international affairs understand the stakes involved in this conflict, its incalculable human toll and how it infuses Middle Eastern politics with bottomless hatred and division. This wholly bizarre fascination with the timing of Israel’s settlement announcements and the attendant, ultimately meaningless vicissitudes in US-Israeli power dynamics reduces the most consequential conflict in the world to a juicy diplomatic gossip story between the very powerful leaders of two very powerful states.

Israeli officials, of course, are primarily concerned not with how settlement expansion uproots Palestinian lives or intensifies the conflict but rather with the possibility that it might anger the bosses in Washington. In a comical bit of “dissent” after Israel published bids for another round of housing units last summer, Netanyahu ally Yahir Lipid expressed concern – “rightly” according to the Times – that the move “needlessly challenged the Americans.” As always, it’s all about the Americans. Pursue policies that destroy the lives of the most vulnerable stateless population on Earth, and worry only about how it affects the most powerful government in the history of the world, which also happens to be an unconditional ally. This is the height of derangement.

As Noam Chomsky has said, to even grant that “expansion” of settlements is the core issue is to give the game away, because the heart of the matter is the existence of the settlements. In other words, the framework for how this is discussed in the media continues to shift in ways that benefit Israel. So, first, instead of arguing the existence of the settlements, the debate becomes about their expansion only. Now, instead of expansion, the story is about which precise day Israel will announce its plans for expansion, as if this has any serious relevance to anyone (the aforementioned anonymous Israeli official told the Times, quite rightly, that “a day here or there makes no difference”). In a few years, perhaps, the question will be about whether or not Israel should bulldoze Palestinian homes at literally the exact date and time that the latest round of so-called “peace talks” are set to begin. We can lament the timing if it’s “wrong” and praise the Israelis if they have the generosity to only fire up the bulldozers when the time is right.

Of all the aspects that factor into how the gravely serious Israeli-Palestinian conflict ultimately will be resolved – if it will be – none are more trivial than the timing of Israel’s imperialist announcements and the personal feelings of people like Barack Obama, Joe Biden and John Kerry. The settlements, which doubtless will continue unabated even as the “peace process” allegedly gains momentum, are morally reprehensible, legally baseless and politically disastrous. This is true regardless of when they are announced or whom their announcement offends. To frame this issue any other way is to deliberately lose the plot.