Commentary Magazine


Weathering the Storm

As we dig deeper into the flap over Jerusalem housing activity, it is worth revisiting a central question: who blindsided whom here?

Hillel Halkin argues that four months ago, the U.S. and Israel had a deal: “Israel reluctantly agreed to suspend all new construction in the West Bank for nearly a year, and the U.S. reluctantly accepted Israel’s refusal to do the same in Jerusalem. … On that basis, the Netanyahu government declared a West Bank freeze and began to enforce it, despite the anger this caused on the pro-settlement Israeli Right from which many of Mr. Netanyahu’s voters come. Now, America has reneged on its word. Using the Ramat Shlomo incident as a pretext, it is demanding once again, as if an agreement had never been reached, that Israel cease all construction in ‘Arab’ Jerusalem.”

Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush, concurs:

The United States and Israel have long had different views of the settlements, but the issue has been managed without a crisis for decades. In the Bush administration, a deal was struck whereby the United States would not protest construction inside existing settlements so long as they did not expand outward. The current crisis, ostensibly about construction in Jerusalem, was manufactured by the Obama administration–and as it is about Jerusalem, isn’t even about activity in the settlements.

Every Israeli government since 1967, of left or right, has asserted that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and has allowed Israeli Jews to build there. … To escalate that announcement into a crisis in bilateral relations and “condemn” it–using a verb we apply to acts of murder and terror, not acts of housing construction–was a decision by the U.S. government, not a natural or inevitable occurrence.

And Dan Senor adds this:

[T]he Obama administration’s decision to “condemn” this mistake was a much larger blunder. The problem is not this particular flap, which will pass, but the underlying misunderstanding that our government’s outburst reflects. Vice President Biden himself said in Israel that the peace process is best served when there is no “daylight” between the United States and Israel. He was right, but he broke his own rule. The word “condemn”–which has only been used by the United States against Iran, North Korea, and egregious human rights violations–created precisely such daylight. The result was predictable: The Arab League immediately announced that it was reconsidering its support for Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks.

So to return to the query: was it the administration that was blindsided — insulted, even! — by a midlevel bureaucratic snafu, or was the Israeli government blindsided by the screeching from the administration, which had no basis to believe there had been any commitment to halt housing development in Jerusalem?  It seems the latter is more likely.

And then there remains the issue of “perspective” — which the nervy Obami implored us all to find as their handiwork was met with a firestorm of protest. We should consider perspective in two ways: how big a deal the housing announcement is and what the incident tells us about the Obami’s own perspective on the Middle East. As for the former, the Obami’s indignation was grossly disproportionate to the matter at hand and was trumpeted most likely for the express purpose of ingratiating Obama with the Palestinians and “preserving” the “peace process.” (Didn’t work out that way, as Senor pointed out.) But the Obami’s perspective — and lack of foresight — is the more troubling of the two sorts of perspective. It should tell Israel and its supporters precisely the challenge they face: how can the U.S.-Israeli relationship weather the Obama administration? We can only hope that the justified outrage that members of Congress and the American Jewish community demonstrated — waking from its slumber — will serve to temper the Obami’s conduct, and in turn help preserve the U.S.-Israeli relationship until cooler heads and warmer hearts occupy the White House.