March 22, 2010
Third Act for the Jerusalem Crisis this Week
Relations between the United States and Israel hit crisis level last week. The drama has played out in two acts so far. The third act comes this week, and it determines whether this whole situation will be a tragedy or farce.
According to the New York Times, the acrimonious ten-day confrontation between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is over -- with each side claiming victory. American officials say that they got important concessions from Israel, while Israeli officials say that Netanyahu didn't give away anything of real importance -- certainly not on Jerusalem, which, after all, was the casus belli for this U.S.-precipitated oratorical row.
Upon review of what actually transpired during these tense ten days, there's a lingering question that should nevertheless haunt Obama for a long time: Did he and his subordinates really need to huff and puff so vociferously against Israel and end up with so little?
The sudden crisis in U.S.-Israel relations can be divided into two parts -- the first involving a major Israeli screw-up, the second involving a much bigger Obama screw-up. In fact, what was barely a mini-crisis in the first act turned into a full-blown set-to when Obama raised the stakes for both sides big time.
The fuse was lit when visiting Vice President Biden was blindsided by an announcement from Israel's Interior Ministry that an interim approval was given to proposed plans for the addition of 1,600 apartment units in Ramat Shlomo -- an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem. With the U.S. trying to get indirect peace talks underway, Biden was furious and criticized the Israeli move as an unnecessary and provocative obstacle to the peace process. He kept Netanyahu waiting for ninety minutes at a dinner hosted by the Israeli leader to draft a fairly sharp response.
At that point, Israel was backed into a dicey corner, and there was a wide consensus among Israelis that Netanyahu was presiding over an out-of-control government coalition. The Prime Minister said that he too was blindsided by the announcement from the Interior Ministry, and the Interior minister apparently also seemed taken aback by the construction-plans announcement from a mid-level bureaucrat. Netanyahu immediately conveyed his apologies to Biden, pledging that no such ill-timed fiasco would ever recur on his watch.
By the time Biden arrived in Tel Aviv 48 hours later to deliver an address at Tel Aviv University, the storm seemed to have abated. Biden still "condemned" Israel's announcement, but he said that he was satisfied with Netanyahu's apologies and explanation that the Interior Ministry was nowhere near ready to launch actual construction of new homes in Ramat Shlomo -- that any actual work wouldn't get underway for several years. At that point, Biden clearly seemed ready to let bygones be bygones, telling his audience that he was relieved by the Prime Minister's assurance that contrary to initial impressions and reports, the fact was that it would take two or three more years before the project reached the construction stage -- leaving ample time for negotiations to reach a two-state solution in the meantime.
End of Act One -- An easily remedied spat.
Start of Act Two -- Enter Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
After drafting the wording for a far tougher U.S. response with Obama, Secretary Clinton ratcheted up and expanded the U.S. slap at Israel into full crisis mode. The Secretary not only "condemned" Israel for announcing housing expansion plans in Rama Shlomo, but also demanded that the project be scrapped. She also demanded several other unilateral Israeli concessions to help bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and undiplomatically warned that unless Netanyahu caved, there could be a serious breach in overall U.S.-Israel relations.
Hillary's boss, known for his repugnance of Netanyahu's Likud Party, clearly wanted several more pounds of flesh from the Prime Minister now that Israel was against the ropes. But Obama, never known for being an astute chess player, forgot to think about the consequences several moves down the line of going into berserk mode against Netanyahu.
For starters, the public mood in Israel changed almost overnight -- from blaming Netanyahu for a royal screw-up to blaming Obama for causing a totally unnecessary rift in U.S.-Israeli relations. The Israeli people deeply resent this assault on the only reliable U.S. ally in the region.
Also, Netanyahu -- while offering several confidence-building gestures to repair the initial damage -- refused to buckle. He advised Washington that he had already demonstrated his commitment to the peace process and serious negotiations by removing hundreds of roadblocks and checkpoints in the West Bank and by fostering economic prosperity in Judea and Samaria that, in the midst of a global recession, are chalking up 6 percent GDP growth. Netanyahu pointed out that every Israeli prime minister since 1967 -- whether of the left or the right -- had allowed construction to proceed in East Jerusalem while negotiations were underway -- and that the Palestinians never objected until Obama became president and led them to believe that he could pressure Israel to do their bidding. Plus, Netanyahu noted the one-sided unfairness on the U.S. side in failing to blister Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority for continuing to glorify terrorist killers and to fabricate false, inciteful claims that a restored synagogue in Jerusalem -- destroyed by Jordan in 1948 -- signaled the start of an Israeli attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount to make room for the Third Jewish Temple. Plus Netanyahu reminded the U.S. side of the obvious: that under any conceivable peace deal, including the Camp David 2000 initiative of Bill Clinton, Ramat Shlomo will remain under Israeli sovereignty.
In turn, several U.S. Jewish groups -- led by the Zionist Organization of America, AIPAC, and the Anti-Defamation League -- protested Obama's unfair and unwarranted attack on Israel's government. They were soon joined by Republican and Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who pressed the White House to get Mr. Cool to cool it.
With Hillary Clinton slated to keynote the annual conference of AIPAC in a few days and Netanyahu in attendance, it finally dawned on Team Obama to cash in their chips and settle for a Pyrrhic victory -- or at least something that could be spun that way.
Act Three -- Still remains to be written.
Will Obama finally put an end to this U.S.-created crisis when he meets with Netanyahu at the White House Tuesday evening? Or will the president threaten to go public with his own peace plan if Netanyahu fails to oblige him? Will Hillary Clinton -- the most damaged cast member in this tragicomedy -- manage to recover from her undiplomatic blunders? Will Abbas make an entrance or find other excuses to remain in the wings and wait for Obama to keep pushing Israel for another round of concessions?