by Jackson Diehl, Washington Post
So it’s now been two weeks since President Obama chose to seize on a poorly-timed Israeli announcement about new Jewish housing in Jerusalem to launch another public confrontation with the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. The results, so far, are these:
Obama’s demand, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that Israel reverse its decision on the new neighborhood and freeze all other new construction in Jerusalem has been publicly rejected by Netanyahu. And the administration, for the second time in a year, has backed down. “Ultimately,” said State spokesman P.J. Crowley at his briefing Tuesday, “the future of Jerusalem can only be resolved through the direct negotiations that we hope will get started as quickly as possible.” That, word for word, has been the Israeli position all along.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has adopted Obama’s original demand as his own: He’s saying he won’t begin even the indirect, “proximity” talks he previously agreed to until Israel accepts the Clinton terms on Jerusalem. How could he do otherwise? The Palestinian leader cannot be less pro-Palestinian than the White House. But Abbas cannot climb down from his position so easily — which means that, for the second time in a year, the Middle East peace process has been stalled by a U.S.-engineered deadlock. U.S. and Israeli negotiators worked until 3 a.m. Wednesday in an attempt to come up with a formula that would allow the talks to go forward. They met again Wednesday morning. So far, no luck.
Finally, Obama has added more poison to a U.S.-Israeli relationship that already was at its lowest point in two decades. Tuesday night the White House refused to allow non-official photographers record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arms length. That is something the rest of the world will be quick to notice and respond to. Just like the Palestinians, European governments cannot be more friendly to an Israeli leader than the United States. Would Britain have expelled a senior Israeli diplomat Tuesday because of a flap over forged passports if there were no daylight between Obama and Netanyahu? Maybe not.
The White House’s explanations for Obama’s behavior keep shifting. At first spokesmen insisted that the president had to respond to the “insult” of the settlement announcement during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Biden — even though the administration knew that, far from being a calculated snub, the decision by a local council had taken Netanyahu himself by surprise.
Next the administration argued that the scrap was a needed wake-up call for Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which, it was said, had been put on notice that its failure to move toward a settlement with Palestinians was endangering U.S. interests in the region. But — assuming for the moment that the administration’s premise is correct — Obama chose to challenge Netanyahu on a point that is not material to the creation of a Palestinian state. As the Israeli leader has pointed out, previous U.S. administrations and the Palestinians themselves have already accepted that Jewish neighborhoods in and around Jerusalem will be annexed to Israel in exchange for territory elsewhere.
U.S. pressure on Netanyahu will be needed if the peace process ever reaches the point where the genuinely contentious issues, like Palestinian refugees or the exact territorial tradeoffs, are on the table. But instead of waiting for that moment and pushing Netanyahu on a point where he might be vulnerable to domestic challenge, Obama picked a fight over something that virtually all Israelis agree on, and before serious discussions have even begun. As the veteran Middle East analyst Robert Malley put it to The Post’s Glenn Kessler, “U.S. pressure can work, but it needs to be at the right time, on the right issue and in the right political context. The administration is ready for a fight, but it realized the issue, timing and context were wrong.”
A new administration can be excused for making such a mistake in the treacherous and complex theater of Middle East diplomacy. That’s why Obama was given a pass by many when he made exactly the same mistake last year. The second time around, the president doesn’t look naive. He appears ideological — and vindictive