Commenting last week on the “Biden row,” President Obama said there was no “crisis” between the United States and Israel, just that the actions of the interior minister in Israel “weren’t helpful” and that “Prime Minister Netanyahu acknowledged as much and apologized for it.” Really? So why did the U.S. administration make such a fuss about it for days, way after Netanyahu had formally apologized? Why did the administration keep saying that the government of Israel, not just the interior minister, had insulted the United States? And why did the administration go so far as to summon the Israeli ambassador in Washington to Foggy Bottom to be scolded, a very harsh step by diplomatic standards, especially between friends?
Back to the hard facts. Vice President Joe Biden landed in Israel on March 8, in the evening. The mood was cheerful. Everybody, both on the American and the Israeli side, recalled that Biden, in his previous life as a U.S. senator, had been one of Israel’s most reliable friends on Capitol Hill.
March 9 was equally idyllic. That is to say, until 6:00 p.m. Then, news broke, from an Israeli Interior Ministry source, that Israel was going to build 1600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood in northern Jerusalem that the Obama administration sees as part of East Jerusalem, i.e., an “occupied Palestinian territory.” (Previous U.S. administrations had various views on East Jerusalem: those parts of the city that were either no man’s land or under Jordanian occupation until 1967. But they usually agreed that its ultimate legal status was legally undecided and should be settled through Israeli-Arab or Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.)
It looked a bit like an Israeli blunder, or even a provocation, since Netanyahu had agreed to Obama’s request, some six months earlier, to freeze for some time any settlement building in the West Bank, if not in East Jerusalem. Biden insisted on apologies. Netanyahu was eager to get over the incident — he and his wife were supposed to host the Bidens for dinner that same evening — and did indeed apologize to him.
However, it became clear very soon that there was no Israeli decision at all to expand Ramat Shlomo. The Israeli prime minister had not passed any such decision. The Israeli interior minister — Eli Yishai, from the Sefardi orthodox Shas Party — hadn’t either. There was only a green light, at a very subordinate bureaucratic level at the Ministry, to review a housing project, without any kind of government commitment. Lara Friedman, an analyst writing for Americans for Peace Now, a militant group opposing any kind of Israeli settlement across the pre-1967 green line, said:
This has been reported by many as a deliberate slap in the face to Vice President Biden by the government of Israel. The facts are less clear. From what we understand it seems almost certain that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not know about the plan or have advance warning that it would be considered and approved for public review at this time. Likewise, this is not the sort of thing that comes under the authority of (Jerusalem) Mayor Barkat. If the timing of this approval/announcement was deliberate, than the culprit here is more likely Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) and/or right-wing officials in the Interior Ministry bureaucracy.
Friedman also said:
It should be emphasized that this is a government plan, not a private plan. This means that the government has 100% control over whether the plan moves forward. The government could withdraw the plan at any time, if it wanted to do so. Under similar in circumstances in 1995 this is precisely what then-Prime Minister Rabin did.
One would have expected the Obama administration to be content with Netanyahu’s apologies, or at least to pay attention to the Americans for Peace Now report. Instead, it escalated its attack against Netanyahu and against Israel as a polity. This is what turns the story into something truly amazing.
Problems arise time and again among good friends or among allies. In spite of their special relationship, the U.S. and the UK have quite often quarreled. But friends and allies usually make sure to calm the issues down. In fact, this is what validates their bond. On the other hand, when a friend or an ally allows the disagreement to grow into a crisis or fuels the fire, that means that it is not a true friend or ally any longer. Remember Jacques Chirac, the president of France from 1995 to 2007, who, on a state visit to Israel in 1995, turned a minor misunderstanding with his Israeli security escort in the Old City into an argument between the two countries. Chirac elicited completely unnecessary apologies from then-Prime Minister Netanyahu. Such behavior merely signaled what was to come : Chirac’s alignment with Yasser Arafat and similar figures in the Middle East.
Clearly, there was an attempt, at some very high level in the Obama administration, to draw political benefit from the Ramat Shlomo announcement. And maybe to engineer such an announcement in the first place. Let’s face it: Shas people were perhaps answerable for the misleading Interior Ministry communiqué on March 9; but then, there are many ultra-left bureaucrats in many places in Israel, and some of them may have been willing to mount something that would pass as a Netanyahu provocation, either by their own volition and calculation, or at the request of American or European friends active in the pro-Palestinian movement. People can be manipulated in many ways. Some can be bought by money, or honors, or academic vainglory. Many are just encouraged to indulge in their idiosyncrasies. There qA something too quick and too trigger-happy in the way Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attacked Netanyahu to dismiss such speculation altogether.
Equally arresting, in this respect, was Israel Ambassador Michael Oren’s unceremonious summoning to the Department of State. Oren, a first-class and best-selling historian who has written extensively about the Six-Day War and the American age-old interest in the Middle East, is arguably the best advocate Israel can have today in the United States. To treat him much like the envoy of a rogue state cannot be innocent. Evidently, what the Obama administration had in mind was to strip him of some of his natural authority and charisma.
Either accidental or premeditated, the lynching of Netanyahu, Israel, and Oren probably had something to do with the AIPAC conference taking place from March 21 to March 23. Most American Jews — 77 percent of them — voted for Barack Obama in 2008. Many wonder today if this was the right move. Disappointment may lead to defection, a very bad prospect in a midterm election year. Hence the solution: to turn Netanyahu into a mere provocateur who insults the United States, and Obama into a true friend of Israel.
However, the whole operation seems to have backfired. The more people thought about it, the more it was President Barack Obama who insulted Israel — and the American people. Not the other way around. Obama is now willing to meet Netanyahu in the wake of the AIPAC conference. Quite a change of tune from a fortnight ago.