When Vice President Biden arrived in Israel on March 8, seeking to smooth U.S. ties with the Netanyahu government and jump-start peace talks, he began by reaffirming America's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security." The nearly simultaneous announcement by Israel that it plans to build another 1,600 homes in disputed East Jerusalem was not the warm embrace he was expecting.
Biden's riposte -- that Israel's actions threaten U.S. interests in the region and possibly endanger U.S. military forces there -- was a rare public admission that U.S. and Israeli interests are not identical. And the predictable accusations that followed the diplomatic slap heard 'round the world have exposed a growing rift in the pro-Israel community in the United States, between supporters of a two-state solution and defenders of the status quo.
On one side stands the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose annual policy conference begins Sunday, along with other hard-line groups such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Anti-Defamation League. Over the past week, they've questioned the Obama administration's handling of the dispute and portrayed the president as insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state.
On the other side groups such as J Street and Americans for Peace Now, which have defended the administration's position and called for firm U.S. leadership to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
In this case, it is the latter organizations and President Obama who have Israel's and America's true interests at heart. Whatever you think of its strategy or its tactics, the Obama administration is genuinely committed to achieving a two-state solution, which is hardly an act of hostility toward Israel. On the contrary, for Obama to keep this difficult and time-consuming issue on his already crowded agenda is an extraordinary act of friendship -- especially when friendship means speaking difficult truths.
Here's why: Both former prime minister Ehud Olmert and current Defense Minister Ehud Barak have warned that if the two-state solution fails, then Israel can remain a Jewish-majority state only by denying voting rights to most of the Palestinians under its control. In Barak's words, Israel would become an "apartheid state."
Instead of helping Israel drive off that cliff, the Obama administration is trying to prevent that outcome. It knows that the relentless expansion of Israel's settlements makes a two-state solution impossible and that an end to building is essential. That includes East Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel is not recognized by the United States (or anyone else).
A two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the United States' strategic interest as well. "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel," Gen. David Petraeus, the head of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples . . . [and] al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world."
A two-state solution wouldn't solve all U.S. challenges in the region, but it would make it easier to address most of them. It is also the best guarantee of Israel's long-term future. By showing real backbone this time and explaining to the American people why his approach is the right one, Obama could advance U.S. interests and be a true friend to the Jewish state.
AIPAC and the other groups supporting the status quo disagree. They think it is acceptable for Israel to continue expanding its control over Palestinian lands and believe that the United States should back Israel's actions unconditionally. And Christian Zionist organizations go further: They want Israel to control these lands forever because they think that will hasten the Second Coming.
Such groups are false friends of Israel, because the actions and stances they prefer will keep Israel on its dangerous path. They are also poor judges of U.S. interests, because the policies they favor aid terrorist recruitment, enhance Iran's influence in the region and make it harder to build effective coalitions with other Mideast states.
Speakers at the AIPAC conference will undoubtedly defend the special relationship and warn Washington against putting pressure on Israel. But this short-sighted approach would be a disaster for all sides. In her scheduled address to the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should reaffirm the U.S. commitment to Israel's existence but make it crystal clear that Washington will no longer tolerate Israel's self-defeating policy on settlements. She should explain unambiguously that Israel faces a choice: It can end the occupation, embrace a genuine two-state solution, preserve its democratic and Jewish character and remain a cherished U.S. ally. Or it can continue the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza -- a course that will eventually force it to abandon either its Jewish character or its democratic principles, and jeopardize its standing with its most important partner.
Israel's friends in America have a choice to make, too. The current crisis will get smoothed over, but more are bound to occur so long as the Palestinians do not have a viable state of their own.
The best way to prevent recurring fights between Washington and Jerusalem is for key groups in the pro-Israel community to back Obama's vision of "two states for two peoples" and to support him when he presses both sides to make peace. It would be wonderful if AIPAC and other like-minded groups put their considerable clout behind this vision, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Stephen M. Walt is the Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a co-author of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy." This essay is adapted from his blog at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com.