Late last month, upon receipt of news that Israel was proceeding with a program of urban construction for Jews in parts of Jerusalem lying beyond the old 1948 armistice lines, President Barack Obama said that he opposed it because it could be “very dangerous.”
There is not a person inside or outside the region who does not know that such language, in this context, is a euphemism for the threat of Palestinian violence. It is therefore astonishing — or ought to be astonishing — that Obama did not couple this observation with any statement on the unacceptability of such rioting or terrorism, or, if he believed it likely, did not publicly counsel against any Palestinian resort to violence.
Such a failure encourages the very thing that prompted Obama’s warning.
In recent days, both before and since his statement, senior Palestinian Authority officials from Mahmoud Abbas down have foreshadowed a return to violence. For example, former PA Prime Minister Nabil Sha’ath said two days before Obama’s comments that:
Today we have the right to return to the armed struggle in order to restore our rights. … [W]e have the right to turn back to the alternative [routes]. … If negotiations fail, we will turn to armed struggle. This is our right, as I have said. … International law stipulates that, when an occupying [force] takes one’s land and harms one’s honor, one has the right to resort to armed struggle.
So what prompted Obama to admonish the Israelis but not the Palestinians? The U.S. and Israel have never seen eye-to-eye on Jews moving beyond the pre-1967 armistice lines that divided Jerusalem. Contrary to the view of successive Israeli governments, left and right, and the bulk of the Israeli public, the U.S. acts as if there is, or should be, a prewar-style gentleman’s agreement to prevent Jews from entering certain neighborhoods.
But then the U.S. and much of the world believe, or pretend to believe, that the Arab war on Israel is really a purely national conflict about territory, not an ideological conflict about Israel’s existence.
That being the case, and faithful to his position, Obama nonetheless could have said, “I do not agree with this policy because I want Israel to divide Jerusalem in the context of a full peace treaty with the Palestinians. At the same time, I warn against any exploitation of this development by extremists and urge the authorities, Israeli and Palestinian, to take all steps to prevent violence.”
Prudence alone would have dictated no less. But he didn’t.