WASHINGTON - Officials in the Obama administration are attempting to quell commotion over whether relations with the government of Israel are now in crisis. The US says they are not.
But for the first time, in a determined, consistent fashion, administration officials are also allowing longstanding concerns over public rebukes, military tactics and policies on the ground— namely, settlement activity— to seep into the public.
The language they have employed this week is exceptionally heated, if measured.
White House and State Department officials said that Israel's decision to expedite the construction of 1,060 housing units
in east Jerusalem was "incompatible" and "inconsistent" with the government's stated pursuit of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. Continued settlement activity calls into question Israel's commitment to peace, officials said.
"There are times when we disagree with actions of the Israeli government and we must raise our concerns, such as our concerns about Israel’s settlement policy," National Security Council spokesperson Alistair Baskey said by e-mail on Tuesday night. "We raise these concerns as a partner who is deeply concerned about Israel’s future and wants to see Israel living side by side in peace and security with its neighbors."
Sharpened language from the Obama administration debuted not on Monday, but on October 1, when Obama hosted Netanyahu in the Oval Office. Just an hour after Netanyahu left the building, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued the new criticism, which Netanyahu's staff found humiliating.
Through the rest of his visit to Washington, Netanyahu found himself talking not about Iran and its nuclear program— his central priority— but about Jerusalem housing, construction timelines and his relationship with the White House, all on national American broadcast platforms.
Three weeks later, his defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, arrived in Washington to even less fanfare: a small honor guard at the Pentagon, a hug from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and a public snub from the White House and State Department, which refused all requested meetings by Ya'alon with senior administration officials.
Asked what consequences might befall the Israeli government, or the US-Israel relationship more broadly, should construction proceed, Psaki only said on Monday that, "obviously, the international community is watching closely what they do."
The US administration can express strong disagreement with Israeli government decisions, Psaki said, that does not affect the fundamental US-Israel relationship.
Pointing to international concern might be an allusion to future action at the United Nations, which the US has historically opposed with the power of its veto in the UN Security Council.
The Palestinian Authority has threatened, in recent weeks, to replace the US with the UN as a broker in the peace process, publicly questioning Washington's effectiveness over decades of failed efforts.
But corresponding by e-mail on Tuesday night, one senior administration official suggested no change in its policy position at the UN.
"We’re not going to get ahead of actions that have not yet been taken," the official said. "But our views remain firm. We strongly believe that the preferred course of action is for the parties to reach an agreement on final status issues directly."
US officials fear its clout in the process extends only as far as the Israeli government is willing to cooperate. Indeed, one senior official told The Jerusalem Post
on October 2 that Jerusalem no longer bothers to give Washington advanced notice before issuing new settlement decisions.
And so the sharpening of rhetoric, now including an acknowledgment of mounting international pressure beyond the control of the United States, might in and of itself be seen as a consequence— a matter of strategic communication available to the administration where other tools are too permanent, too consequential, and perhaps viewed as disproportionate to the incremental settlement actions riling the world.
Consequences, too, greet the administration when it decides to take a harsher tone.
Only after the October 1 humiliation, and after Ya'alon's embarrassing treatment, did Netanyahu chose to proceed with 1,060 new units on Monday. Whether he would have moved forward in a better environment with Washington, or whether the environment has alternatively encouraged him, raises critical questions over just what type of leader Netanyahu truly is— and over the efficacy of Washington's public strategy in dealing with him.
Political blocs in Jerusalem and Washington alike squirm at foreign pressure, each from the other, prideful and provincial in their convictions; the consequences of US condemnation, in some Israeli circles, was inevitably going to be a double-down.
But these critiques from Washington are different. As the White House, for the first time, begins questioning Israel's fundamental commitment to peace, the effects of its public diplomacy might, too, grow out of its control.
Set in their ways and a six-year relationship, Obama and Netanyahu are not expected to change course— the relationship will not detox. Only new leadership, on one side or the other, can shake a spiral of rhetoric and its real political consequences.