Netanyahu biden dinner 311.
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai did
more to harm US-Israel relations than all of Israel’s detractors around
the world ever could when they decided it is more important to build
1,600 houses in east Jerusalem than to have good relations with one
house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s hard to believe the timing of the announcement out of a ministry
run by Shas at the start of Vice President Joe Biden’s
make-love-to-Israel visit authorizing construction in the haredi Ramat
Shlomo neighborhood was simply an “innocent” matter of poor timing, as
Netanyahu and Yishai would have us think.
By the way, if you say Ramat Shlomo is in east Jerusalem and thus not
covered by Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on construction beyond the
1967 border, hold on a minute. Israeli and American media report
Netanyahu agreed there would be no construction announcements for east
Jerusalem, either, as long as his promise wasn’t made public.
Netanyahu claims he was blindsided on what is obviously a very
sensitive matter; if true, that raises a critical question: Who’s in
charge? If Yishai is running a rogue operation and he still has his
job, then the first Israeli premier with an MBA is a mighty poor manager.
Netanyahu, dismissing the incident as “regrettable” and “innocent,”
apologized for the timing of the announcement but not its intent –
building more housing for Shas’s constituents. Instead he tried to pin
the blame on the Obama administration, reportedly saying the crisis was
“orchestrated” by Washington. He ordered a full-court-press to lobby
the Congress, the media and Jewish leaders to force the administration
to back down.
AIPAC QUICKLY saluted and started generating letters and press releases
calling on the administration to “defuse” the crisis. Not a word about
how a good friend like Biden had been humiliated – a word used by both
governments. ADL, which initially accused the Netanyahu government of
creating the crisis, quickly reversed itself and joined the attack on the administration.
Ambassador Michael Oren, a historian who should know better, called
this the worst crisis since the 1975 “reassessment” by the Ford
administration. He apparently hadn’t heard about the 1990-92
Shamir-Bush I-Baker imbroglio.
Netanyahu’s latest offensive is reminiscent of his efforts in the 1990s
against the Clinton administration’s peace policies, but this time he
doesn’t have a Republican-led Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich
Biden, an Israel visitor for many years and strong supporter, went to
reassure Israelis publicly and privately of the depth and strength of
the administration’s support, from the president on down, and to
emphasize the shared commitment to keeping Iran from going nuclear.
Under Obama, Biden told Israelis, the strategic relationship had been
“expanded – not maintained, expanded.” For many years every
administration has urged Israeli and Arab leaders to offer “no
surprises,” so when a good friend like Biden arrives and gets smacked
in the face this way, it is easy to see why some might feel it was
Israeli media have reported over the past year that the Prime
Minister’s Office has been a primary source of anti-Obama leaks. The
president hasn’t helped his cause by fumbling his Mideast policy in his
first year and not visiting Israel, where he badly needs to personally
convince centrist Israelis that he and his administration are reliable,
caring friends. That was part of Biden’s mission, and if that’s the way
an old friend is treated, Obama is not going to be very anxious to
THIS DISPUTE is not about settlements. Or even about rogue Shas
bureaucrats trying – successfully, it turns out – to derail a nascent
peace process. It is about trust – a rapidly dissipating commodity.
That’s an old problem with Netanyahu. He did not enjoy a reservoir of
trust going into this crisis, and it’s not just with President Obama
but also with a pair of former US senators with staunch pro-Israel
records, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. If he manages to alienate them,
he’s got major tzoris
in managing the bilateral relationship.
He lost his premiership the last time – as did Yitzhak Shamir before
him – because Israeli voters lost confidence in his ability to handle
relations with what a Jerusalem Post
editorial called “the only real friend Israel has in the entire world."
It said his government looks “completely incompetent” and its top priority must be “rebuilding that trust.”
You don’t do that by waging a lobbying campaign attacking the president
of the United States. Hopefully he won’t try that when – and if – he
comes to Washington for next week’s AIPAC conference. New York Times
columnist Tom Friedman wrote that if Netanyahu thinks he can “embarrass
your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political
need, with no consequences,” he has “lost total contact with reality.”
The only winners in this crisis are the rejectionists. Shas flexed its
muscles, the settlers got more tribute, Netanyahu won brownie points
with the nationalists and haredim, the Arab League had an
I-told-you-so-moment and withdrew its hechsher
for the now-suspended
talks, the Palestinians might name a park or soccer field for Eli
Yishai, and the weak and ineffective Mahmoud Abbas gets to look tough.
And peace, if it every really had a chance, looks even more remote.