Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was recently quoted in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as saying that the two countries' bilateral relationship is suffering its "worst crisis since 1975. Thirty-five years ago, Israel deployed troops in the Egyptian Sinai. The move -- of dubious legality -- quite rightly drew pressure from the US.
The recent furore, which Oren hyperbolically described as one "of historic proportions", was triggered by the ill-timed announcement that Israel plans to build 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo district of East Jerusalem. The EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, has condemned the plans in no uncertain terms: "The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two state-solution impossible."
The start of 2010 has brought a marked escalation of tensions in the region. It was in this heated context that the US vice-president, Joe Biden, announced the welcome resumption of indirect peace talks, to be brokered by the US. But the announcement about settlements (which triggered Palestine's withdrawal from negotiations), coming as it did during Biden's visit, had the character of a direct affront to the Obama administration -- not to mention the long-suffering Palestinians.
According to the Guardian, President Obama has "let it be known that he now demands [that the Israelis] reverse the approval for the construction of Ramat Shlomo, make 'a substantial gesture' towards the Palestinians and declare that the status of Jerusalem is itself up for negotiation".
East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel during the 1967 war. To this day, the international community has refused to recognise the appropriation of the region from Jordan. The Israeli neighbourhoods there (housing almost 200,000 settlers) are in breach of international law, despite the misleading and divisive arguments of commentators such as the Wall Street Journal's Ruth R Wisse.
In a comment piece published today, she wonders: "Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country?" The answer, Ms Wisse, is that the land in question isn't theirs to build on.
Netanyahu's conduct is hard to justify, but his brother-in-law Hagai Ben-Artzi's inflammatory attack against Obama -- launched in an interview with Israel Army Radio -- was beyond belief.
"For 20 years, Obama sat with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who is anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish," he said, inferring from this circumstantial detail that the president "dislikes the people of Israel". On Fox News yesterday, Obama responded by reaffirming the "special bond" between Israel and the US: "Friends are going to disagree sometimes."
Obama is unlikely to act decisively against Israel, which remains a vital ally in the Middle East. But true friends of Israel must criticise it when it's wrong.
A few years ago, a study by Steven Zunes of San Francisco University found that the country held the record for ignoring the most UN Security Council resolutions. The creditable UN Watch website complains of "a campaign to demonise and delegitimise Israel in every UN and international forum". But its reasoning is untenable and paranoid: it brands the organisation as the "Ground Zero for today's new anti-Semitism, which is the irrational scapegoating of Israel with the true intended target being Jews".
Judith Butler's 2003 essay "No, It's not anti-Semitic", published in the London Review of Books in response to the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's alleged conflation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic arguments, best sums up the case for "a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate".
"If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be 'effectively anti-Semitic'," she wrote, "we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-Semitic enterprise."
International law remains the best set of rules to judge the moral conduct of nations, as Richard Falk and Howard Friel assert in Israel-Palestine on Record. Its selective use defeats its purpose, and opens doors for abuse.
When any country errs, it should be held to account. This is not a religious or racial issue; it's a legal one.