Commentary Magazine


Did Bibi Slap Obama in the Face?

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s political options at home are limited. His breach-of-trust conviction and his pending corruption trial are preventing him from running in next month’s Knesset election. But even if he could run, the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis reject his position on the peace process would give him no chance to defeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. So he has done what he and other Israeli political has-beens always do: go to the United States and receive applause from their country’s critics.

To that end, he was in Washington yesterday criticizing his country’s government and saying that Netanyahu’s decision to approve building projects in Jerusalem and its suburb was a “slap in the face” to President Obama. He believes the project to build in the so-called E1 area that connects Maale Adumim with the city was an insult to the president, especially after the United States stood by Israel during the conflict with Gaza and at the United Nations. Olmert is right to say that Obama’s recent support for the alliance has been exemplary and there’s little doubt the administration would have preferred if Israel would have taken its punishment at the UN meekly rather than by showing that it would stick up for its rights. But Olmert’s assertion that the building in the E1 area undermines a two-state solution is belied by his own behavior while in office.

It should be remembered that Olmert offered the Palestinian Authority a state in almost all of the West Bank, Gaza and a share in Jerusalem with the PA to be compensated for Israel’s retention of the settlement blocs with swaps of territory. Among those areas to be held by Israel was the Maale Adumim bloc of suburbs just outside of Jerusalem.

Whenever he is in America earning speaking honorariums from liberal groups, Olmert is always careful to praise PA head Mahmoud Abbas as a genuine partner for peace, even though he didn’t accept Olmert’s proposal just as his predecessor Yasir Arafat rejected Ehud Barak’s offers. Olmert claims that if he had just had a few more months in office, the two could have crafted a deal and brought about peace. But such assertions are either delusional or mendacious.

It is true that Abbas didn’t definitively turn down Olmert’s offer. He was so afraid of the political consequences of making a deal that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state that he fled the negotiations without saying anything. That left Olmert free to pretend that if he hadn’t been driven from office by both corruption charges and crushing unpopularity (at one point during his dismal tenure in office, his poll ratings were so low they were within the survey’s margin of error), he could have made a peace that Netanyahu has failed to achieve. But anyone who has paid the slightest attention to the situation knows this is utterly false.

The point here is not just that Olmert’s self-promotion is both deceptive and in bad taste. It is that his own vision of peace with the Palestinians would have left Israel in control of Maale Adumim and the E1 area that is supposedly so controversial that any Jewish building there is both an obstacle to peace and an insult to Obama. Had Abbas not sped away from the talks with Olmert and actually signed the deal he was offered, Israel would have had the right to build in these areas. That leaves us asking how Netanyahu’s decision to treat areas that would be held by Israel even after it surrendered both the Arab areas of Jerusalem and most of the West Bank would somehow prevent an accord.

This “slap” to Obama is much the same as the trumped-up “insult” to Vice President Joe Biden in 2010 when another housing project in a 40-year-old Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem was approved while he was visiting the city. Unless the United States were to take the position that those neighborhoods must also be handed over to the Palestinians, how could building there prevent a deal that would divide the city by the handing over of the predominantly Arab portions of the city?

Few Israelis share Olmert’s high opinion of his own record or his belief in Abbas’s devotion to peace. But their evaluation of the former PM hasn’t penetrated into the thinking of many American Jewish liberals who cling to the notion that Israel can magically produce peace via concessions despite the fact that even Palestinian “moderates” have demonstrated they have no interest in signing a peace deal.

President Obama needs no help from Olmert in finding reasons to dislike Netanyahu, even though he is almost certainly fated to spend the next four years dealing with him. However, for any Israeli to try and exacerbate the situation in order to feather their own nest ought to be beyond the pale. Netanyahu’s decision was no insult to Obama. Olmert is welcome to come here as often as he likes and to bolster his legal defense fund. But it is outrageous for him to use these junkets to try and undermine the delicate relationship between the U.S. and Israel by making misleading statements about the peace process that contradict his own past stands.

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