For those wondering what President Obama meant when he reportedly told American Jewish leaders that Israel needs to “engage in serious self-reflection,” the answer wasn’t long in coming.
Tensions have now emerged over building homes for Jews — not in large West Bank settlements, but in East Jerusalem, which was annexed by Israel in 1967 and ever since has been part of a united Jerusalem in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims live and worship freely.
On Thursday, someone in the State Department — responding to pressure from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — told Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren that the Obama administration wanted Israel to put a halt to a housing project in East Jerusalem. The plan is to build 20 apartments in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. The site is near Mount Scopus (home to the Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital) and Israel’s national police headquarters, has been in private hands since it was bought by U.S. millionaire Irving Moskowitz in 1985, and was a border police station from 1987 to 2002.
It was Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s government that reportedly decided to go public with the matter, as a way of conveying that when it comes to construction, Jerusalem is a red line.
Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday:
We cannot accept the fact that Jews wouldn’t be entitled to live and buy anywhere in Jerusalem. I can only imagine what would happen if someone suggested Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. … United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people in the State of Israel, and our sovereignty over the city is not subject to appeal. … There is no ban on Arabs buying apartments in the west of the city, and there is no ban on Jews building or buying in the city’s east. This is the policy of an open city.
On Monday, U.S.-Israeli tensions appeared to be flaring on another front as well. With Defense Secretary Robert Gates reportedly planning to visit Israel next week to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program, a “senior U.S. defense official” was quoted as coming out strongly against an Israeli strike on Iran:
“A unilateral third-party attack on Iran’s nuclear program,” the official reportedly said, “could have profoundly destabilizing consequences. … It would affect Israel’s security and it would affect our interests, and the safety of our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere. … It’s a pretty big deal, and given the closeness of our relationship with Israel, I think we would hope that they would take those strategic calculations into account.”
The statement contrasts sharply with Vice President Joseph Biden’s assertion just two weeks ago that “Israel can determine for itself — it’s a sovereign nation — what’s in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.” In hindsight, Biden’s words were either a gaffe or part of an attempt by the administration to sow confusion in the minds of the mullahs; the former seems more likely.
1. Despite occasional conciliatory statements about America’s commitment to Israel’s security, progress on working out the differences over settlements, and the like, the administration — in keeping with Obama’s “self-reflection” remark — is continuing to treat Israel as a rogue country whose irresponsible actions pose special problems for U.S. policy. This while the administration is soft toward the likes of Syria and Russia, and shows impotence toward North Korea and infinite patience and deference toward Tehran even in the wake of its brutal crackdown on dissent.
2. Netanyahu has gone far in trying to conciliate — some would say appease — Obama, but with meager results so far. Netanyahu has reversed his lifelong staunch opposition to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, delegated dovish Defense Minister Ehud Barak to try and resolve the settlements issue with the U.S., and ordered the removal of numerous West Bank roadblocks and checkpoints along with other measures to ease daily life for the Palestinians. Yet the U.S. pressure on fundamental issues like Jerusalem and Iran continues and Netanyahu is said to lack any direct channel of communication, let alone chemistry, with Obama.
3. The administration is pressuring Israel on what are actually consensus issues within Israel. This emerges clearly from previous Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Washington Post op-ed last Thursday. Affirming — pace the Obama administration — that the Bush administration indeed forged understandings with Israel on settlement construction that were overwhelmingly endorsed by Congress and considered binding by both governments, Olmert went on to say:
… today, instead of a political process, the issue of settlement construction commands the agenda between the United States and Israel. This is a mistake that serves neither the process with the Palestinians nor relations between Israel and the Arab world. Moreover, it has the potential to greatly shake U.S.-Israeli relations. …
Settlement construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past. This would enhance our bilateral relations and allow us to deal with the essential issues [such as] the political process [and] preventing Iran’s attempt to obtain nuclear weapons. …
The time to deal with such important matters is running out. We cannot waste what time we do have on non-priority issues.
While Olmert was far more dovish than Netanyahu on the Palestinian issue, on matters like the right to live in Jerusalem and the large settlement blocs, and the urgency of the Iranian threat, there is widespread consensus in Israel — the same Israel that Obama sees as insufficiently thoughtful and the true object, beyond the Netanyahu government, of U.S. ire.
4. Israel’s image is already being harmed, with one poll finding the rate of Americans who call themselves supporters of Israel plummeting to 49 percent from 69 percent last September. Constantly hectoring Israel and casting it as an obstacle to U.S. aims will have that effect. Netanyahu appears to have realized that efforts at amity will only go so far, and turned openly defiant on the Jerusalem issue. The question is who — besides the Israeli people — will support him.