It is no secret that the US opposes the settlements. They also aren't happy with Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem and scores of other matters. But as the so-called "honest broker" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, they have no business trying to undermine Israel's negotiating position. And with false data at that. But that's exactly what they did when they had David Makovsky run a story on the front page of the May 20th "Haaretz" claiming that 26% of the housing units in the settlements of the West Bank are empty.
Nobody is perfect, but as political secretary of Peace Now, Mossy Raz told me, "it is possible to innocently make many mistakes and even easier to make them with evil intentions." Raz termed the American estimates of vacant housing in the settlements "ridiculous." "There is a person in the US east Jerusalem consulate, Bill Roebuck, and his job is to cover the issue of the settlements and this is what he does. He is a serious worker and every time we publish something he contacts us to ask about every piece of data. I can't believe that it is his study because his is very serious." And while Peace Now has every interest to support such American claims, Raz candidly admits that only the settlements in the hinterlands far from the Green Line have a significant number of empty homes.
Raz wasn't alone. According to Yehiel Leiter of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, "all the reporters who cover the territories are rolling on the floor with laughter, they can't believe the Americans would put out information which is so obviously wrong."
Mistakes can happen. So when US Consul-General Edward Abington met with reporters later in the day there was every reason to expect a graceful withdrawal. Instead Abington opted to publicly embrace the numbers. America is clearly more interested in the propaganda value of the report than in its accuracy.
The US may think that "the ends justify the means" but sacrificing the truth on the altar of convenience does have its costs. Rather than encourage Israeli concessions, the American fabrication serves to bolster the argument against taking any "risks for peace" that might increase Israel's dependence on America. After all, if the US denies the obvious what will they do when faced with such "inconvenient" evidence as Syrian troop movements towards a future demilitarized Golan?
The current propaganda campaign is only one part of a larger approach which, ultimately, is anti-peace. For while the US has focused its spy satellites and devoted precious man hours counting the supposedly empty houses in Ariel, it seems to be doing nothing about Palestinian activity which may topple the peace process.
Of course there are limits to the abilities of intelligence, and as Brig. Gen. (res.) Aharon Levron, formerly of the Intelligence Corps, points out, "if we look at American intelligence during the Gulf War we see there were many serious shortcomings. They focused the most advanced intelligence technology available on Iraq and yet, after the war, Rolf Ekeus, the head of UN weapons inspections, found that Iraq's capabilities were magnitudes greater than intelligence estimates. And even after the war, with inspection teams on the ground, the West hadn't a clue about the extent of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program."
American intelligence may not know how many anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles the Palestinians have smuggled in. They might even have missed the network of bunkers which Arafat has built in preparation for conflict. But there is more than enough going on which requires no more than a pair of eyes and reasonable intelligence to pick up. Consider illegal Palestinian construction on the bypass roads. The whole idea behind the bypass roads is to keep Israeli traffic out of Arab towns and villages. America should have every interest in keeping attacks against Israelis to a minimum during the interim period so that the Oslo Process may march on. The Palestinians however have other ideas and are busy building illegal houses with an eye towards turning the safe bypass roads into gauntlets of rocks and fire bombs. And America remains silent. Because for America, the only illegal construction which matters is Jewish construction, regardless of its impact on security.
Will America's pressure/propaganda campaign work against Netanyahu? That's up to the PM. As former Washington ambassador Zalman Shoval notes, there's no comparison between the situation now and the pressure which Secretary of State Dulles and President Eisenhower put on Israel to unilaterally withdraw after the Sinai Campaign of 1956. True, Israel did eventually pull out, but this was only after the Soviet Union threatened war and America made it clear that it had no intention to help. And while there may be talk today of reducing American aid, in '56 Ike was seriously considering dropping the tax deduction for contributions to the Jewish State. Even then, facing the world, Israel did not fold completely to America's dictate. As Howard M. Sachar writes ("Egypt and Israel", 1981), Dulles wanted an Israeli withdrawal not just from Sinai but from part of the Negev Desert as well as part of an early version of "land for peace." It took the Americans years to accept the Rhodes Armistice lines of 1949 as Israel's permanent frontiers.
One thing is certain, if America really wants to be an "honest broker" they should steer clear of the kind of nonsense they tried to palm off this week as fact. Being "even handed" doesn't mean handicapping Israel.
(May 21, 1997)
Dr. Aaron Lerner is Director of IMRA (Independent Media Review & Analysis).