You can’t get any more establishment than Leslie Gelb. The former New York Times columnist worked in the Johnson and Carter administrations and is now the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Yet having a lifetime of heavy-duty policy experience is not the same thing as actually understanding what’s going on. The reaction of this quintessential foreign-policy “wise man” to the current dustup between Israel and the United States betrays his confusion.
In his Daily Beast column, Gelb bemoans the loss of American prestige because of the perceived insult to Vice President Biden via an ill-timed announcement of a Jerusalem housing project. In doing so, he foolishly buys into the notion that the publicity given the incident will undermine the ability of the United States to exercise influence over other potential crises.
But the world is not going berserk over this confrontation because of its intrinsic importance. The administration had already accepted, albeit reluctantly, the fact that no building freeze would be accepted by Israel inside its own capital. Indeed, no previous American administration has ever made an issue about building in the existing Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. This dispute was not the result of worry about the loss of U.S. influence but a conscious decision by the Obama administration to pick a fight with the Israeli government.
Moreover, Gelb’s assertion that these Jerusalem apartments are a deliberate attempt by Israeli right-wingers to sabotage peace talks with the Palestinians is a joke. Those talks, in which the Palestinians wouldn’t even deign to sit next to their Israeli counterparts, never had a chance of success. Having rejected Israel’s offer of an independent state in the West Bank, as well as a share of Jerusalem in 2008 (as they had previously rejected one in 2000), the Palestinian Authority is no more likely to sign on to any deal today, no matter where Israel’s borders are placed or how many concessions are forced upon the Israelis by Obama.
Even more delusional is Gelb’s idea that Israel’s actions, and its rightful refusal to rescind the housing project and thus accept the principle that Jews may not build in Jerusalem, will harm America’s efforts to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The truth is quite the opposite. The Obama administration’s decision to blow a minor event into a major international incident is evidence of their desire to shift the world’s focus away from Iran and onto the Netanyahu government. As his year of failed engagement showed, Obama never had any real interest in taking action on Iran, and there is little chance that Washington’s lukewarm push for sanctions on Tehran will ever succeed. Hyping Israel’s insult into a watershed moment not only shifted the conversation from Iran’s Islamist regime onto Netanyahu, it gives Obama a ready excuse for his failure to make good on a promise to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear status.
Contrary to Gelb, the dangerous decisions that may well determine the course of American foreign policy in the coming decade are not being made by obstreperous Israelis, who are, he claims, blind to their country’s best interest. Instead, the great foreign-policy blunder of 2010 — the decision to employ American pressure against Israel instead of Iran — is the result of a deliberate choice by the Obama administration. It’s too bad that a “wise man” like Gelb is encouraging the fools in Washington rather than alerting them to their folly.