At last week’s press conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, President Obama was asked what he would do if Israel would not accede to his demand for a complete building freeze on all Jewish towns and villages on the other side of the green line. Obama said he was not yet ready to offer an “or else” since his demands were put to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so recently. “That conversation only took place last week,” Obama said.
However, as of today, he’s got Israel’s answer: a blunt no. Netanyahu told the Jerusalem Post that the American demand is “not reasonable.”
There will be those who think Bibi is foolish to draw a line in the sand on this issue in advance of Obama’s address to the Arab world from Cairo on Thursday. But since there is no way any Israeli government can accept this dictate, perhaps it is better to get this difference on the table now.
Israel’s critics, including many Jews who are embarrassed by the settlements topic, think the issue is a loser since Obama can claim he is only trying to promote peace. But there are two broad principles at stake here.
The first is the question of whether Obama can get away with deliberately flouting U.S. agreements made by his predecessor, acknowledging Israel’s right to hold on to the main settlement blocs close to the 1967 borders (many of which are merely close suburbs of Jerusalem). How can Obama expect Israel to make good on past promises about removing outposts if the U.S. is going back on its word on related issues?
The second is, as Netanyahu has asserted, the unreasonable nature of a demand that Jews be prevented from building in existing neighborhoods in places that no Israeli government would give up. The international community considers it an outrage that Arabs in Jerusalem are compelled to get building permits for building additions to their homes and protest when illegal building is demolished. But at the same time they call for the demolishing of nearby Jewish developments.
As to what Obama will do in response to this piece of Israeli chutzpah, the New York Times published a piece by Helene Cooper today outlining Obama’s options. The most popular with the administration includes no longer vetoing anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and stepping up the anti-Israel rhetoric emanating from the commander-in-chief himself — with his Cairo speech perhaps being the debut of the offensive.
As others have noted, it is only a year since Obama spoke to the AIPAC convention in Washington, D.C. at which he voiced support for Jerusalem’s unity and made all the usual pro-Israel noises we expect from politicians. Obama began the process of walking back from those promises within days, as he retracted his statement about Jerusalem. No doubt the next step in his long march away from Israel and toward further appeasement of Iran will be taken in Cairo. All of which leaves me wondering again about what pro-Israel Jewish Democrats, who dismissed Republican assertions that Obama was insincere in his support for Israel, think about all this now.