BOSTON — It would be hard to imagine a greater insult to the Obama administration than announcing a large new housing development for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was flying in to help start up stalled peace talks. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deplored the timing of the announcement, but not the content. He quickly made it clear that he had no intention of rescinding it.
Of course it was said that Netanyahu didn’t know, that his interior minister didn’t know, that it was the work of the rightest of right wing Shas party, that the announcement just slipped into the cracks between coalition partners, and so forth.
Not everyone was buying it. Yossi Sarid, writing in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, said: “Don’t believe Benjamin Netanyahu for one minute when he says he ‘never knew.’ The Jerusalem planning committee is only too aware of what the bosses want.”
And what they want in East Jerusalem is “dispossession, taking possession, kicking out and moving in,” wrote Sarid, a columnist and former member of the liberal wing of the Knesset.
Alon Liel, former director of the Israeli foreign office, was willing to give Netanyahu a bit more benefit of the doubt. He told The Wall Street Journal that the announcement was the work of underlings who “do not care about the peace process, who would like to embarrass Netanyahu in order to slow down the process.”
It is becoming ever more clear, however, that Netanyahu is a great deal more interested in the peace process than he is about actually achieving peace. Keeping a process going helps keep the Americans and the Europeans off his back. But Netanyahu’s game has always been to appear open to peace with the Palestinians, and open to negotiations, but to make conditions where an agreement is never reached and make that look like the fault of the Palestinians.
Relations between the Obama administration and Israel have never been great. Polls showed that Israel was one of the few countries that did not welcome Obama’s presidency. One of Biden’s purposes was to restart a chemistry between Jerusalem and Washington that has been sorely lacking. He has now ended up condemning Israel’s new settlements in strong language.
Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, essentially gave Israel a green light for what ever it wanted to do to the Palestinians. It was an impossible act for Obama to follow if he was going to bring an agreement between Palestinians and Israelis.
The stakes are high. As British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Boston on Wednesday, the Palestinian-Israeli standoff is the “greatest recruiting sergeant ” Al Qaeda has. A workable settlement of the Palestinian question wouldn’t bring an end to terrorism, but it would very much cut the legs out from under its appeal.
As I have written before in this space, Obama went eye-ball-to-eye-ball with Netanyahu when Obama called for a complete settlement freeze in the occupied territories, but Obama blinked first.
Many have argued that Obama should never have made that demand in the first place. The New York Times editorialized that Obama had “seriously miscalculated.” His goal was just, the paper argued. “A settlement freeze could well have jump-started serious negotiations. ” But having issued the demand, only to have Netanyahu defy him without any penalties, made Obama look weak. And the Middle East is not the sort of place in which you want to look weak.
Netanyahu came through with a meaningless 10-month moratorium on settlements, not including Jerusalem, but there was no disguising the fact that he had won the first confrontation of Obama’s administration.
Few countries have more influence over each other than the United States and Israel. For Israel, U.S. support is an existential matter. The Israeli public may like to see its leaders stand up to the U.S. on occasion, but will never let a politician damage the relationship.
Conversely, the Israeli lobby is the most effective and powerful foreign policy lobby in Washington. Obama had to calculate that the lobby, with its great influence in Congress, could make his treasured domestic programs, such as health care, more difficult to achieve if he persisted in meddling with Israeli settlements.
There can be no doubt who won. Unlike in George W. Bush’s father’s administration, there was no pressure on loan guarantees, nothing to show Netanyahu there might be a cost to going up against an American president. In that sense Obama is now reaping what he has sown when he lost the settlement stand-off with Netanyahu last year.
Much of the world views Israel’s settlement activity to be illegal under Geneva Conventions governing occupied territories. Clearly the building provides an obstacle to reaching a political settlement with the Palestinians who want East Jerusalem to be their capital. Israel’s public affairs minister, Yuli Edelstein, made it clear to The New York Times, however, that “there will not be in the foreseeable future an Israeli government willing to divide Jerusalem. Normally our friends in Washington understand that.”
The sad thing is that Biden brought with him a reconfirmation of U.S.-Israel ties, and swore undying fealty to Israel’s security. Israel’s insult to him will not, and should not, change that equation.
It’s just that bringing about a Palestinian state in a two-state solution would do more to ensure Israel’s security than anything else the United States could do. And that is further away today than it was before.