Last month the White House pulled out the red carpet to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but the charm campaign is a new phenomenon. Less than six months ago, the U.S.-Israel relationship was in deep trouble.
On March 9, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel and was told of an administrative announcement by the Ministry of Interior approving one of the first stages toward the construction of 1,600 apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The announcement represented no dramatic change of policy or diplomatic message. But the Americans responded as if it was a deliberate high-level slap in the face, and the Israeli government apologized profusely.
After two days of condemnations from the White House followed by Israel’s profuse apologies, it appeared that the crisis was over. On March 11, the Associated Press reported that Biden “attempted to soothe tensions in a speech extolling the countries’ close relationship, signaling the U.S. wants to move beyond an embarrassing diplomatic spat over settlements that tarnished his three-day visit.”
Biden noted that the prime minister had “clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years. … That’s significant because it gives negotiators the time to resolve this as well as other outstanding issues.” Press accounts reported that Netanyahu had called Biden on Thursday morning, “and both agreed the crisis is behind them.”
On March 12, in a move coordinated with the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unleashed a 43-minute telephone harangue of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Clinton called the settlement approval a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship … which had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.” The State Department spokesman said Clinton stressed that “the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”
On March 13, Netanyahu convened a meeting of his inner cabinet to discuss the Clinton call and to announce that he was setting up a government committee to oversee building announcements. On March 14, Netanyahu discussed the issue with the full cabinet and declared that the incident was “regrettable and should not have taken place.” Ostensibly, the issue was over, at least as far as Israel was concerned.
Yet the White House — still! — had other plans.
Hours later, presidential adviser David Axelrod went on Sunday’s TV news shows to attack the settlement decision. He said it was “very destructive … an affront … an insult. … What it did was it made more difficult a very difficult process.”
Over the next few days, anti-Israel and critical columnists and bloggers unleashed their venom against Israel. On March 15, the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote:
President Barack Obama was furious. In a top-down administration like this one, you don’t get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lambasting Netanyahu for 43 minutes and David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, speaking of “an affront” and “an insult” and a “very, very destructive” step if America’s measured leader is not immeasurably incensed. … Netanyahu’s apology is not enough. The United States is asking for “specific actions.”
So what happened?
A fire that was supposedly extinguished flared up again and again.
Clearly, while Biden and Netanyahu were making up, in the White House a decision was made to apply Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s famous strategy for crisis management:
You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn’t think you could do before.
The 1,600 Jerusalem apartments would become the anvil on which the administration would forge a pliant Israel. The message would have to be amplified, and for the White House, the pro-Obama, purportedly pro-Israel J Street was a perfect vehicle.