By deliberately inflating the Ramat
Shlomo issue into a public crisis of faith in its ally, the Obama
administration has given encouragement to Israel’s enemies, turned more
of Israel’s dwindling ranks of friends against us, and potentially put
every Israeli’s life in a little more danger.
The original Ramat Shlomo sin was Binyamin Netanyahu’s. And it was
Not the “sin” of pursuing an Israeli government policy to build in
Jerusalem. Agree with it or not, assert that it is Israel’s sovereign
imperative or foolishly antagonistic, but either way it’s Israel’s
No, the sin lay in announcing that you’re expanding a Jewish east
Jerusalem neighborhood on the very day that one of your very best
friends in the problematic administration of your most important
strategic ally is in town for a goodwill visit. The sin lay in
announcing the move when you know it runs counter to American policy,
announcing it without warning, having assured the administration that
you won’t surprise it with controversial actions as it struggles to
mediate a resumption of the negotiations you seek with the Palestinians.
And the sin was exacerbated because you’d already made exactly the same
blunder before – releasing plans for the expansion of Gilo immediately
after meeting with the president four months ago – and when you’d
promised the president, after that screw-up, that you’d taken steps to
prevent a recurrence.
Only those who lack so much as a passing familiarity with the running of
the current Israeli government would question the authenticity of the
embarrassed prime minister’s apology to Joe Biden, and his pleading
assurance that he’d had no idea, ahead of time, that the Interior
Ministry’s local planning committee was formally approving the
construction of 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo at the very height of the
Biden visit. Only those who lack so much as that passing familiarity
find it impossible to believe that Eli Yishai, the interior minister,
was not routinely alerted to such sensitive decisions in advance, and
that Netanyahu had himself failed to put the appropriate warning systems
into place, even after the November precedent. Of course such foolish
incompetence is plausible. It can happen in some of the most efficient
and best-run hierarchies, and few would describe the Israeli government
as one of those.
Only those who insistently think the worst of Netanyahu, furthermore,
could so much as contemplate that he would have done this deliberately.
The last thing he would have wanted to do is embarrass Biden.
The last thing he would have wanted to do is provoke a major controversy
over construction in east Jerusalem, having resisted US pressure to
halt all building there, and being thoroughly aware of the incendiary
nature of the issue. He’s not a pyromaniac. Only days before, he had
telephoned Nir Barkat to quash the mayor’s plans for a controversial
redevelopment plan in Silwan, just outside the Old City, that would have
involved the demolition of dozens of illegally built Arab homes: “Drop
it, Nir, it’s the last thing we need right now,” he essentially told the
mayor in a telephone call shortly before Barkat was to address a press
conference announcing the project.
The last thing he would have wanted to do was draw presidential and
international attention to Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood founded by the
would-be peacemaking Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 that hardly anyone outside
Israel had even heard of before last week, where 20,000 Israeli Jews had
made their homes, hitherto headline-free.
All previous prime ministers in recent decades have built in east
Jerusalem, Netanyahu noted accurately in the Knesset earlier this week,
in a plaintive attempt at defense that amounted to an inadvertent
admission of incompetence: Yes, all previous prime ministers had built
in east Jerusalem – without incurring the incandescent fury of Israel’s
best ally, without bringing the roof down. And you, Mr. Netanyahu, who
merely wanted to add more homes to an existing, large, thriving
neighborhood – in an area of the city, between French Hill and Ramot,
that Mahmoud Abbas would never have contemplated coming under
Palestinian control – managed through spectacular ineptitude to bring
that long-term enterprise to a juddering halt.
There are those who are calling on Netanyahu to fire Yishai, the
interior minister under whose watch this happened, an ultra-Orthodox
political leader, but one who claims to have the wider interests of
Israel at heart and who used Shas’s electoral weight to ensure he was
also named a deputy prime minister. Go to Shas’s spiritual leader Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef, explain the situation, and facilitate a dignified
reshuffle, some are urging. In so doing, you send a message to that
highly aggrieved Washington that you have internalized the seriousness
of the fiasco.
But dismissing Yishai wouldn’t actually be fair. For principal blame for
the initial Ramat Shlomo dispute rests not with Yishai’s lower-level
committee and not even with the minister himself. It lies with
Netanyahu. And nobody expects the prime minister to fire himself.
SO MUCH, however, for the original sin. For all its gravity, it is the
reaction, the staggering overreaction, of the Obama administration, and
most certainly and centrally of the president himself, that is the more
shocking, counterproductive and potentially dangerous aspect of this
Biden was furious when he heard about Ramat Shlomo, condemned the
decision in coordination with Obama, investigated and clarified and
demanded answers... and moved on. He and his team rewrote his Tel Aviv
University speech, in which he repeated his condemnation. But he went on
to note that he appreciated the prime minister’s subsequent response.
He said he was gratified to learn that new building in the neighborhood
was potentially years away, which would hopefully give time for
negotiations to supersede marginal decisions on where to build by
resolving Jerusalem’s status altogether. And he got back to his visit’s
primary purpose: reassuring Israel, and making plain to the
Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community, that the
United States stood firmly with the Jewish state.
And there the matter could have rested. Except that the president
evidently decided that it should and could not. Hence Hillary Clinton’s
43-minute telephone call to Netanyahu last Friday, with its accusations
that Israel had insulted America, threatened to undermine the very
essence of the bilateral relationship, and needed to demonstrate afresh
its commitment to that relationship. Hence senior White House adviser
David Axelrod’s salvoes against Israel on America’s Sunday political
THE US was angry. Israel gets it. Netanyahu didn’t want to freeze
building in Jerusalem last year, and he doesn’t want to this year, and
Washington saw an opportunity to now force him to do so.
The US is impatient. We get that too. While many, perhaps most Israelis,
truly believe that prime ministers Rabin, Barak and Olmert traveled a
great deal more than half way down the road in their efforts to reach a
viable peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians, and that those
efforts foundered, to the misfortune of all sides, on the rock of
abiding Palestinian rejection of our very legitimacy here, the Obama
presidency evidently feels differently. It is wrong and it ought to know
better, but this administration apparently still believes that Israel
had the capacity to go further, to offer even more than Olmert’s spurned
West Bank-relinquishing, Jerusalem-dividing terms, and to win the
The US, and most notably its president, do not trust Netanyahu. We can
certainly understand that, in the light of the one-two Gilo and Ramat
Shlomo public disputes, which probably merely confirmed warnings the
Clinton administration had provided about the difficulties of dealing
The US is not convinced that Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking,
about the two-state solution he has publicly endorsed. Plenty of
Israelis share precisely those concerns. Plenty of Israelis doubt that
Netanyahu has chosen to truly commit himself to dramatic territorial
compromise in the cause of an accommodation, at the expense of
alienating the traditional Right, at the expense of his own
settlement-championing ideology. Plenty of Israelis see him as a prime
minister impossibly trying to keep everybody on whom he thinks he
depends happy or at least happy-ish – the hawks, the settlers, the Labor
Party, the Americans. Plenty of Israelis wonder whether he is capable
of prioritizing properly – whether he has internalized that, if Iran is
the key strategic threat to Israel’s very existence and a strong
relationship with Washington is central to grappling with that threat,
then he needs to ensure that nothing, but nothing, he does or allows to
be done undermines that relationship.
And the US cannot afford to be humiliated by its allies. That, too, we
appreciate. It cannot allow itself to be exposed as soft and incapable
of imposing its will. How seriously can its enemies take an America that
allows even tiny, dependent Israel to run rings around it?
ALL OF this we understand. And none of it merits the deliberate,
disproportionate escalation by the Obama presidency of the Ramat Shlomo
dispute, after Biden had left our country, and its counterproductive
consequences for all – consequences that can, at best, only be partly
and temporarily alleviated by the disingenuous “no crisis” tone adopted
by the president and the administration in the last few days.
For one thing, the public bitterness of the American response shoves
Abbas all the way back up his maximalist tree again. If America has
turned on Israel, and is making demands on Israel that impact on core
issues like Jerusalem, why would he volunteer compromise?
For another, it emboldens Palestinian and wider Arab extremism. If
America publicly brands Israel worthy of such bitter condemnation, then
the worst of the extremists can confidently expect their violence
against Israel to be granted still more indulgence internationally than
it already, terribly enjoys. Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran could well figure
that Israel may not even get backing from the United States when it
moves to try and control the next bloody onslaught, the seeds of which
were already sprouting this week in Gaza, the West Bank, east Jerusalem
and the Old City.
Furthermore, when professions of absolute, “no space,”
shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity – as expressed by Biden in his Tel Aviv
speech – are rapidly followed by a public avalanche of criticism and
allegations of disloyalty to the US interest, as expressed by the White
House and State Department, how much weight can Israel henceforth afford
to attach to such warm rhetorical assurances? If, on Tuesday, America
stands side-by-side with Israel, Ramat Shlomo fiasco notwithstanding,
how is it that by the weekend, when nothing substantive has changed,
Israel can find itself buried under a global welter of headline
accusations of near-betrayal, including talk of American soldiers’ lives
at risk? And how comforted is Israel expected to be by the backtracking
of a few days later, and the revived insistence that the bilateral
bonds are unbreakable and unshakeable?
The issue of American soldiers’ well-being is among the most problematic
aspect of the entire dreadful affair. Testifying to the Senate Armed
Services Committee on Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US
Central Command, stated: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and
some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to
advance our interests in the AOR [Centcom’s Area Of Responsibility].
Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale
armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due
to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the
Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships
with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of
moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other
militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict
also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients,
Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas.”
Petraeus delivered a careful, soldierly assessment. But if part of the
Obama administration’s fury with Israel stems from a hugely problematic
interpretation of that kind of assessment, then the strategic
relationship between Israel and at least this American leadership is in
more trouble than most of us had previously considered possible.
Yes, indeed, Israel’s refusal to curl up and disappear – its refusal to
allow itself to be defeated in conventional warfare, or by strategic
terrorist onslaught, or via missile attacks on its civilian population,
or through untenably dangerous territorial, demographic and security
concessions at the negotiating table – rankles with the Arab world. Even
the moderate Arab states, even those that have formally made peace with
Israel, would much rather we were not here.
Israel’s insistence on defending itself is most certainly an irritant.
It most certainly pushes ruthless regimes and proxy armies and terrorist
organizations into devising new and more callous methods to try to harm
us. And those who are hostile to Israel relentlessly seek to undermine
the partnership Israel enjoys with its principal defender, the United
But it is precisely because Washington has understood that Israel – with
its historic rights, its moral legitimacy, its determined upholding of
democracy, its shared values and interests with the freedom-furthering
West – must not be abandoned in the face of relentless military and
diplomatic attack, that the US has for so long dependably stood by
Israel against its enemies, even when other so-called friends have cut
off military assistance and abandoned diplomatic solidarity in moments
of real crisis.
It is because of America’s heroic international commitment to upholding
and protecting free world values that US troops are deployed in Iraq and
Afghanistan. And while Europe, in its weak, short-term misjudgment of
self-interest, is too often prepared to capitulate to rapacious Islamic
fundamentalism, America has thought and acted differently in those war
zones and where Israel is concerned. America has recognized that Israel
is on the front line of the free world’s battle against the bleak,
murderous, tyrannical forces of Islamic extremism. And yes, in defense
of its own interests, America has been ready to stand firm alongside
Israel’s battling soldiers and embattled civilians.
Siding with Israel has galvanized anger and violence against the US, in
our region and beyond. Well of course it has. But siding with Israel is
siding with the values that are the essence of America. And abandoning
Israel is abandoning those values.
Incidentally, nobody should have any delusions: Murderous Islamist
hostility to the West in general and the US in particular would not be
defused by the elimination of Israel. The purported imperative to
destroy the Zionist enterprise is a convenient pretext for galvanizing
the masses. If Israel were brought down, however, the fundamentalists
would simply move onto the next spurious example of ostensible Western
decadence to justify the assault.
THE RAMAT Shlomo affair was an extremely unfortunate but eminently
containable dispute – indeed, it had been contained.
By inflating that issue into a public crisis of faith in its ally, the
administration has given encouragement to Israel’s adversaries and
turned more of Israel’s dwindling ranks of friends against us – another
lost slice of the international community and, significantly, a
potentially sizable chunk of the American public, notably including a
proportion of the overwhelmingly Democratic-voting American Jewish
This is not a case of a frustrated administration helping Israel toward
what it regards as necessary compromise via tough love. And its
repercussions have gone far beyond teaching the mistrusted Netanyahu a
lesson in correct behavior toward crucial allies.
It was a crisis, a coldly reignited crisis, and it remains a crisis even
as it is being downplayed. It has emboldened our enemies and thus
risked putting each and every Israeli citizen in more danger than they
were a few days ago. It has rendered our country more vulnerable to
those plentiful forces – forces antithetical to Israeli and to American
values and interests – that want to see us wiped out.
Israel’s dysfunctional government slapped Joe Biden and the American
government in the face. What the administration has done in return is
far more sinister.