Last November the government of Israel agreed to a 10-month moratorium on new Jewish housing in the West Bank. The moratorium did not apply to schools, synagogues, and residential units already in the pipeline; nor did it apply to eastern Jerusalem, which is home to around 180,000 Israelis — more than a third of Jerusalem’s Jewish population. Yet even with those caveats it was an unprecedented concession, intended, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, to “encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbors.”
At the time, the Obama administration applauded Israel’s announcement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed it as a “move forward.” George Mitchell, the president’s special envoy to the Middle East, praised it as “a positive development” that “could have substantial impact on the ground” and acknowledged that “it is more than any Israeli government has done before.”
So when Israel’s Interior Ministry recently announced its interim approval for the construction of 1,600 new apartments in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, it was not reneging on any commitment. If anyone was guilty of bad faith in the diplomatic crisis that ensued, it was the Obama administration, which had explicitly accepted the terms of Netanyahu’s building freeze in November, yet was now going back on its word.
The Israeli government was guilty at most of poor timing, since the announcement came as Vice President Joe Biden was in the country and indirect talks with the Palestinians — who have refused for more than a year to meet face to face with the Israelis — were scheduled to begin. The gaffe should have been waved aside as soon as Netanyahu apologized for his government’s awkward announcement, which he had not known about in advance. Instead the Obama administration went nuclear. Clinton publicly blasted Israel for what she called “an insult to the United States,” and upbraided Netanyahu in a blistering 45-minute phone call, with talking points scripted by the president himself.
For good measure, the State Department spokesman then demanded that Israel demonstrate “through specific actions” its commitment to peace. Forgotten, apparently, was Netanyahu’s unprecedented moratorium of last November, to say nothing of the innumerable Israeli goodwill gestures, concessions, prisoner releases, and peace offers to the Palestinians that preceded it — all of them unrequited.
When President Obama was asked Wednesday evening whether US-Israeli relations are now in a crisis, he flatly answered: “No.” But an atmosphere of harsh antagonism seems to be exactly what the administration’s tantrum was meant to engender.
If the president’s goal was to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table and thereby revive the so-called “peace process,” he couldn’t have chosen a more counterproductive tactic. The Palestinian Authority promptly seized the opportunity to back out of the indirect talks it had agreed to — why negotiate for Israeli concessions if Washington can force Israel to deliver them on a silver platter? “We want to hear from Mitchell,” said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, “that Israel has cancelled the decision to build housing units before we start the negotiations.”
This has been the Palestinian Authority’s strategy ever since Obama took office tilting against Israel. Last spring, the PA’s Mahmoud Abbas told Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post that he had no intention of negotiating with Israel — he was content to sit back and let Washington twist Netanyahu’s arms. “The Americans are the leaders of the world,” Abbas told Diehl. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. . . . I will wait.”
Israel generally bends over backward to accommodate Washington, but there are some things no Israeli government can relinquish. One of them is the right of Jews to live in Jerusalem — in all of Jerusalem, including the parts of the city conquered by Jordan in 1948 and kept judenrein until 1967. Israelis quarrel over many things, but the vast majority of them agree that Jerusalem must never again be divided. Americans agree as well. Indeed, as a matter of federal law — the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 — it is US policy that “Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected.”
As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama said that was his position too. Millions of pro-Israel American voters believed him, just as they believed his pledge of “unwavering friendship with Israel.” The recent unpleasantness suggests it may be time for second thoughts.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. His website is: www.jeffjacoby.com