How Grown-Ups Handle Middle East Diplomacy

In her many jaw-dropping assertions at AIPAC yesterday, Hillary Clinton intimated that the U.S. really had no choice but to throw a public temper tantrum over the Israelis’ housing-permit announcement. She proclaimed:

It is our devotion to this outcome – two states for two peoples, secure and at peace – that led us to condemn the announcement of plans for new construction in East Jerusalem. This was not about wounded pride. Nor is it a judgment on the final status of Jerusalem, which is an issue to be settled at the negotiating table. This is about getting to the table, creating and protecting an atmosphere of trust around it – and staying there until the job is done.

Well, if not “wounded pride,” it was perhaps amateurism (unless we believe it was an intentional contrivance to impress the Obami’s Palestinian friends). American credibility doesn’t depend on blowing up at an ally in public over a routine housing announcement. If there is any doubt, Jackson Diehl offers a helpful reminder that in a similar situation, the Bush administration handled the matter discretely, preserved the “peace process,” and did not give the Arabs the notion that there was space between the U.S. and Israel. He writes:

The trick is not to let the provocation become the center of attention but instead to insist on proceeding with the negotiations. That is what [Condi] Rice did when news of the Jerusalem settlement of Har Homa broke. In public, she delivered a clear but relatively mild statement saying the United States had opposed the settlement “from the very beginning.” In private, she told Olmert: Don’t let that happen again. For Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the message was equally blunt: You can come to the table and negotiate a border for a Palestinian state, making settlements irrelevant. Or you can boycott and let the building continue.

Not surprisingly, Abbas — who has taken Obama’s public assault on Israel as a cue to boycott — showed up for Rice’s negotiations. The Bush administration privately offered him an assurance: Any Israeli settlement construction that took place during the talks would not be accepted by the United States when it came time to draw a final Israeli border. On settlements, Rice adopted a pragmatic guideline she called the “Google Earth test”: A settlement that visibly expanded was a problem; one that remained within its existing territorial boundary was not.

So it wasn’t Israel’s announcement on Ramat Shlomo that highlighted “daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region could hope to exploit,” but the ballistic reaction by Hillary and others.

And that “Google Earth test” to which Diehl refers (sometimes described as “up” and “in,” but not “out”) also suggests that the Obami have been less than credible themselves in adhering to past deals. Moreover, it further undermines another Clinton assertion: that any Israel building project prejudices a final outcome negotiation. The Bush team successfully maintained the position that final-status talks are, well, final-status talks at which the U.S. need not accept any Israeli construction as a fait accompli. (We’ve already seen that the Israelis, based on those very assurances, were willing to dismantle settlements in the West Bank.)

It really does take chutzpah for Hillary to tell AIPAC that Israel is the one putting daylight between it and the U.S. and to whine that it was Israel that forced the Obami to berate its ally. This is classic blame-the-victim talk. It ignores obvious and tried-and-true alternatives to the Obama smack-Israel tactics. It’s also pretty much par for the course for the Obami.