Vice-President Joseph Biden's visit to Israel last week was touted in advance as an effort by the Obama administration to reassure Israelis of its warm feelings for Israel. Things did not quite work out that way. Indeed Israel's ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told Israeli consuls in America, in a Saturday night conference call, that the crisis in American-Israeli relations triggered by Biden's visit is the most serious since 1975. The tongue-lashings administered to Israel by a host of administration officials, most notably Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, suggest that perhaps a love-fest was never on the administration's agenda, and that if the announcement of plans to build new housing in Jerusalem had not dropped in the administration's lap, some other pretext for rebuking Israel, like the declaration of Ma'arat Machpela and Kever Rochel as national historical sites, would have been found.
The announcement at the outset of Biden's visit of government approval of another 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood undoubtedly handed the Palestinian Authority and a hostile U.S. administration a huge own goal. It allowed the Obama administration to burnish its anti-Israel credibility in the Moslem world with repeated public expressions of outrage; provided the United States and the European Union with the means to ratchet up pressure on Israel for further concessions; and handed the Palestinians an excuse to withdraw from negotiations in which they have no interest, while being able to place the onus on Israel.
Yet no matter how stupid the timing of the announcement, it should have had no substantive impact on the ill-starred proximity talks that had been scheduled to take place. When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced a ten-month freeze on settlement building in late October, in order to entice the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, he explicitly excluded from the freeze building in Jerusalem, even in areas beyond the 1949 armistice lines. Despite that exclusion, Secretary of State Clinton praised the prime minister's "unprecedented" concessions.
Thus any building of new units in Ramat Shlomo, a large chareidi neighborhood, was fully within Israeli policy guidelines of which both the United States and the Palestinians were fully aware, and which Clinton recognized as a major concession on Israel's part. Netanyahu's insistence on continued building in Jerusalem was not, as the Obama administration and J Street seem to think, a reflection of his allegedly right-wing views, but an expression of the Israeli consensus. Even in the wake of the harsh American response to the announcement of the new units, not one of the five Labor members in the cabinet expressed any unease with the government policy.
The planned units in Ramat Shlomo would not create new facts on the ground. There is no conceivable scenario in which the 20,000 chareidi residents of Ramat Shlomo would be uprooted from their homes, at least so long as Israel exists. Nor would a slight expansion of Ramat Shlomo's borders preclude an eventual division of the predominantly Arab areas of the city from the rest of Jerusalem in final status negotiations.
For negotiations with the Palestinians to have any chance of success, the Palestinians must understand that they will not receive everything they want and wind the clock back to 1947. Israel was created as a homeland for the Jewish people by the United Nations in 1948. Arab armies sought to eradicate that decision by force of arms in 1948, 1967, and 1973, and each time were defeated. Israel will not willingly destroy its status as a "Jewish" state by permitting the return of all Arab residents who left in 1948 and their descendants. (Just last week, the European Court of Human Rights rejected the claim of Greek Cypriots, who fled the Northern part of the island in 1974 for the return of their homes. The Court decision noted, "Generations have passed. The local population has not remained static. . . . Much Greek-Cypriot property has changed hands at least once, whether by sale, donation or inheritance.")
Nor will Israel willingly subject its entire civilian population to imminent threat by returning to the aptly named pre-1967 "Auschwitz borders." Finally, no sane Israeli prime minister will trigger an all-out civil war, which would destroy the country, by seeking to uproot the major settlement blocks built since 1967.
Feeding Palestinian fantasies cannot be the pre-condition for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians; rather it is the guarantee of their failure. Hundreds of thousands of Jews live in Jerusalem neighborhoods built since 1967, and that is not going to change. Netanyahu refused to freeze all Jerusalem construction, with the unanimous agreement of his cabinet and most opposition members as well, because to do otherwise would be to undermine the legitimacy of all those neighborhoods built since 1967, as well as feed Palestinian irredentism.
From the outset of the Oslo process until 2009, the Palestinians never made negotiations conditional on a cessation of all settlement building. But when the Obama administration entered office and began to focus obsessively on the necessity of an Israeli settlement freeze, Mahmoud Abbas was forced to follow suit and refuse to negotiate absent such a freeze. Last week's hysterical American response to the proposed new units in an established Jerusalem neighborhood repeats the administration's initial mistake of making negotiations more difficult by feeding Palestinian illusions of what America will impose on Israel.
THE ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE NEW UNITS was ill-timed, and Vice-President Biden can be forgiven for initially assuming that it was meant to complicate his visit to Israel. Yet Secretary of State Clinton's response a full two days after Prime Minister Netanyahu had profusely and abjectly apologized, both publicly and privately, was over the top. She delivered a lengthy dressing-down to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Friday, which both she and State Department spokesman Phillip Crowley were only too pleased to describe in detail for the press. In an NBC interview, Clinton called the Israeli announcement an "insult to the United States."
According to Crowley, Clinton told Netanyahu that "she couldn't understand how this happened" – a question which the Prime Minister had already answered at length. So great was the insult that it constituted a "deeply negative signal about Israel's approach to the bilateral relationship" and "undermined . . . American interests." Now, Crowley reported Clinton as saying, it was up to Israel to show that it was committed to the bilateral relationship "not just through words, but through specific actions."
In short, in Clinton's Wellesley etiquette book the appropriate response to an insult, however inadvertent, is not an apology, but gifts, lots of gifts. And the proof of commitment to the American-Israel bilateral relationship is that Israel do whatever America says. (Imagine how the Americans would have reacted to an Israeli spokesman who questioned America's commitment to the bilateral relationship on the grounds that the Obama administration has still not taken one concrete step to neuter the Iranian nuclear threat. Every time one of the administration's deadlines for an Iranian response passes, we hear again about how the Secretary State will now start rounding up international support for sanctions, which will take anywhere from weeks to months to draft, it having apparently never occurred to anyone to draft such sanctions in advance just in case the Iranians ignored yet another deadline.)
Interestingly, no American official ever thought to question the Palestinians commitment to the peace process when Abbas refused to negotiate at all, or saw fit to criticize the Palestinians' for sending negative signals about their commitment to peace when the Palestinian Authority named a public square after Dalal Mughrabi, the architect of the Coastal Road Massacre, in which the first victim was an American citizen, and in which 37 Israeli civilians were killed by terrorists. Nor has the Secretary of State ever hinted that the Palestinians might be showing a bit of ingratitude for the hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid showered upon them by flatly refusing to negotiate with Israel directly.
In accusing Israel of undermining American interests, the Secretary of State lifted a page from the foreign policy realists, whose influence on the Obama administration has been evident from the start. According to the realists, the Arab-Israeli conflict holds the key to all that ails the Middle East, and America's identification with Israel is an albatross around America's neck preventing it from advancing its interests in the region.
White House counselor David Axelrod followed along in the same vein. When asked not once but twice by Jake Tapper whether the Israeli announcement of the intention to build additional housing units in Ramat Shlomo "put the lives of American troops at risk," Axelrod did not dismiss the suggestion out of hand. While not specifically adopting Tapper's analysis, he subtly reinforced it by stating that it was important for America's "own security" that the Palestinian-Israeli issue be resolved. Tapper's question, however, bordered on the lunatic. The Taliban is not fighting to regain its control of Afghanistan because of Israel. Nor are the so-called insurgents in Iraq, whether Sunni or Shiite, continuing in their attempts to destabilize the country because of Israel.
As reported in Yediot Ahronot, Vice-President Biden was explicit, albeit private, in this demonization of Israel as endangering American soldiers. "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us . . . ," Biden was quoted as telling Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In the course of her scolding of Netanyahu, Clinton was also reported to have ordered him to cancel the Ramat Shlomo project. She thus reverted to the hectoring tone of last June when she stressed that President Obama does not want to see a single porch extended anywhere beyond the 1949 Armistice Lines, including Jerusalem. Only with Israel and Honduras has she indulged in issuing orders in such an imperious manner.
Even Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a long-time defender of the Obama administration's policy towards Israel, and someone who has gone so far as to accuse critics of President Obama's Mideast policy of latent racism, professed to be "shocked and stunned at the administration's tone and public dressing-down of Israel of future building in Jerusalem." "We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States," the ADL statement continued. "One can only wonder how far the United States is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table." (Apparently, Foxman's memory is not as good as mine with respect to previous ultimatums to Israel from Clinton.)
The EU, another member of the Quartet, saw in the harsh American response to Israel's blunder, an opportunity to exert more pressure on Israel. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton hinted that the EU would use trade with Israel as leverage to pressure Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians. Since Israel has long made clear its readiness to negotiate without preconditions, and it is the Palestinians who have been refusing to negotiate, she can only have meant that Israel would be pressured to make further concessions to the Palestinians. The American and EU positions were thus perfectly coordinated.
What continues to go unnoted by both the Obama administration and the Europeans is that the Palestinians have not moved one iota from their basic positions as of the start of the Oslo process nearly twenty years ago. Palestinian textbooks and media continue to incite against Jews and Israel and to exult martyrdom. And another generation of Palestinian children has been raised on the hope that all of Palestine will one day be theirs. Over the same period, Israel has made repeated territorial withdrawals and uprooted eight thousand Jews from their homes in the hope of advancing peace.
Jerusalem Post editor David Horowitz speculated that Clinton's public attack on Netanyahu was designed to suggest to Israelis that they have to choose between their prime minister and good relations with America. If so, she was aping her husband's heavy-handed efforts to influence the 1999 elections in favor of Ehud Barak, including sending his top political operatives to work for Barak. What Mrs. Clinton fails to appreciate, however, is that the situation is far different today than in 1999. Netanyahu now stands at the very heart of the Israeli political consensus, nowhere more so than with respect to building in Jerusalem.
With all attention focused on the blunder of announcing the new housing units and the American response, another news item at week's end passed almost without notice in Israel. The survivors of Rachel Corrie, a member of the radical International Solidarity Movement, who was killed when she knelt in front of an Israeli army bulldozer not realizing that she was hidden from the driver's view, are currently suing Israel in Israeli court. Corrie has become a poster child for anti-Israeli propaganda in the United States, in much the same way the iconic faked photo of Mohammed al-Dura cowering behind his father while allegedly being targeted by Israeli soldiers became a potent tool for fostering hatred of Israel in Europe.
Though Corrie hated America as well as Israel – she was once photographed entertaining Palestinian children by burning an American flag -- her father and sister told reporters last week that American embassy officials in Israel have been actively involved in their family's lawsuit, and even encouraged the family to bring it. That suit is a piece of political agit-prop designed to place Israel in a bad light in America.
In light of the overheated American response to the blunder of announcing the housing approval during Vice-President Biden's visit and the American embassy's involvement in the Corrie suit, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) can be forgiven for concluding in a press release last week: "The narrative before this week was that President Obama wasn't properly understood by Israel as a friend. The truth is that he was properly understood."