The Attack on Netanyahu

In orchestrating fierce attacks by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Obama allowed his long-held anti-Likud animosity to blind him to basic political and diplomatic realities about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As if Mideast diplomacy doesn't face enough hurdles, Obama has made things worse.

Even before he became president, Obama, when asked whether he was a friend of Israel, responded with a qualified affirmative, emphasizing that one didn't have to be in lockstep with Likud orthodoxy to qualify as a supporter of the Jewish state. To Obama, Netanyahu's political party basically doesn't fit his idea of who should run Israel's government.

And judging by his directives to Clinton and Biden to go all-out in condemning Netanyahu over an announcement of a preliminary planning OK for 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem, Obama showed that he has carried his animus against Likud into the White House.

But in giving full vent to his anti-Likud sentiments, the president forgot to do his homework about past and current U.S. criteria for a two-state solution. Ramat Shlomo was simply the wrong target for creating a crisis with Netanyahu and Israel.

In getting all exercised about more housing in Ramat Shlomo, Obama forgot that his own Secretary of State praised Netanyahu not too long ago when he agreed under administration pressure to impose a ten-month moratorium on housing construction in West Bank settlements. Netanyahu's unilateral concession to entice the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table did not encompass East Jerusalem. Clinton nevertheless praised it as an "unprecedented" confidence-building measure.

And so it was.  After all, ever since the Oslo agreements of the early 1990s, Palestinians have been negotiating with Israeli prime ministers from Rabin to Olmert, even while construction of new homes in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements was occurring. Only when Netanyahu again won the premiership last month did Abbas, with seeming Obama encouragement, raise the stakes by demanding a unilateral Israeli freeze as a precondition for resumption of peace talks.

Given this history, Clinton thus was absolutely on target when she praised Netanyahu's decision to suspend housing construction in West Bank settlements as "unprecedented." No other Israeli leader had ever offered a Palestinian leader such a sweetener just to get him to the negotiating table. And this sweetener was preceded by several others. From the outset, Netanyahu ordered an end to construction of new settlements, an end to confiscation of land for settlement expansion, and an end to financial incentives to entice Israelis to put down roots in the West Bank -- all before Abbas was even ready for indirect or direct negotiations.

This leaves Clinton looking rather silly when she now gets her dander up and excoriates Netanyahu for allowing construction planning to proceed in Ramat Shlomo -- something she was perfectly willing to accept in exchange for the West Bank construction moratorium only a few months ago.

Obama somehow forgot that Ramat Shlomo is exactly the kind of well-established Jewish neighborhood in northeastern Jerusalem that Netanyahu was not going to touch, and that did not raise administration hackles when Clinton was on the same page as Bibi in trying to get peace talks restarted.

Add to this the fact that Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood of orthodox Jews in northeastern Jerusalem, is exactly the kind of place that all previous U.S. peace proposals envisaged as remaining under Israeli sovereignty.  Construction of Ramat Shlomo began in 1993 (it now is home to 2,200 families with a population of 16,000) -- seven years before Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak offered Arafat their Jerusalem plan for a final peace deal -- with Israel retaining all Jewish neighborhoods, including Ramat Shlomo, while Arab neighborhoods would be folded into a Palestinian state. 

Thus, Hillary Clinton was fuming over housing for more Jews in a Jerusalem neighborhood that her husband earmarked for permanent Israeli sovereign control. Incidentally, Arafat rejected the Clinton-Barak initiative out of hand.

More recently, Ehud Olmert offered Abbas a similar split of Jerusalem -- again with Ramat Shlomo under Israeli sovereignty -- which he propounded in response to diplomatic efforts by George W. Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice. Again, Ramat Shlomo fit U.S.-Israeli diplomacy to a T. Incidentally, Abbas, like Arafat, rejected this U.S.-backed initiative as well 

Thus, while Netanyahu profusely apologized for the timing of the planned Ramat Shlomo home-construction project while Biden was in Israel, and while Biden himself said he was satisfied with Bibi's "clarification" that actual construction wouldn't start for several years, Obama still could not contain his bilious fury against the Likud leader of Israel's government and ordered Hillary Clinton to pile on with some scathing blasts of her own.

Bottom line: First by raising excessive Palestinian expectations at the start of his presidency and now by going overboard in attacking Netanyahu, the president has set back his own efforts and hopes to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict once and for all. By allowing passion to overwhelm reason, he has set back the peace process to virtual impossibility.
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