Washington Watch: Barack Obama, gird thy loins

Just when it looked like the crisis in US-Israel relations was turning around, Netanyahu decided to escalate the disagreement rather than try to diffuse it privately.

July 22, 2009 22:44
4 minute read.
Washington Watch: Barack Obama, gird thy loins

douglas bloomfield224.88. (photo credit: )

Just when it looked like a serious Washington-Jerusalem rift might be avoided - thanks in large part to the Saudis and their mishpucha - Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu opened it wider with a burst of provocative demagoguery. A meeting last week between the new Israeli ambassador and a State Department official was inexplicably blown up into a crisis. Initial news leaks out of the Prime Minister's Office said Michael Oren had been "summoned" to Foggy Bottom and presented a "demand" that an east Jerusalem apartment project be halted. Oren was actually making a get-acquainted visit with Deputy Secretary of State Jacob Lew, who protested the project, which was financed by long-time Netanyahu supporter and backer of right-wing causes, Bingo baron Irving Moskowitz. The US has consistently objected to Israeli construction in east Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods. Instead of dealing with the issue quietly as had been his predecessors' practice over the past 15 years, Netanyahu decided to go public and escalate the crisis by accusing the Obama administration of trying to tell Jews they could not live where they wished in their own capital. Where do the Saudis fit in? Netanyahu has the Saudi king and other Arab leaders to thank for relieving American pressure for a total settlement freeze and persuading the White House to seek a fallback compromise that is expected to allow current construction to be completed, followed by a freeze of some months to gauge the Arab reaction. President Barack Obama went to Riyadh last month in advance of his Cairo speech to the Muslim world. According to some reports the king made clear to Obama he was unwilling to show reciprocal gestures in exchange for a halt to settlements. King Abdullah stuck by his demand that Israel accept the all-or-nothing Saudi plan. As a result, George Mitchell, the Mideast envoy and prime mover in the demand for a settlement freeze, is going back to the region this week to work out a compromise with Netanyahu. What's puzzling is just when it looked like the crisis in US-Israel relations was turning around - the White House made a point of praising Netanyahu's recent moves to improve conditions for West Bank Palestinians - Netanyahu decided to escalate the disagreement rather than try to defuse it privately. Some observers say he feels a spat with Washington over Jerusalem - unlike the unpopular settlements - may help him rally American Jews against Obama's peace policies, but has he forgotten that a big reason voters tossed him out the last time - and why Yitzhak Shamir got the boot in 1992 - was his failed stewardship of the American account? Military analyst Amir Oren wrote this week that Netanyahu's "bickering" with Obama "over the nonsense surrounding the settlements is harming the IDF's capability in dealing with its most vital missions," notably Iran. One of the risks of getting $3 billion a year from American taxpayers is you can't tell your benefactor to just shut up and send more money. Netanyahu reportedly has accused the Obama White House of pushing the settlement freeze to bring down his government and called the president's top two aides, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisor David Axelrod, self-hating Jews. I wonder if he's added Jack Lew to that list. Where's Dale Carnegie when you really need him? Does he think he can intimidate Obama into dropping efforts to resuscitate peace negotiations? Or is he trying to derail Obama's rumored plans to proffer his own proposal for reviving peace talks, including a binding timetable for resolving final status issues? There are indications that some on the right in the American Jewish community, including some at the top of key organizations, are encouraging Netanyahu to openly challenge Obama as part of a campaign - begun in last year's presidential campaign - to paint this president as an enemy of Israel. In his first six months in office, Obama has visited 15 countries, some more than once, but not Israel, although it is critical to his diplomatic agenda. It was important that he spoke in Cairo about America's "unshakeable" commitment to Israel, but he has to deliver that message in person to a nervous Israeli public, whose support and trust he doesn't yet have. It's not enough to invite 16 Jewish machers to the White House or meet the prime minister in the Oval Office. Speaking directly to the Israeli people may be the only way to counteract Netanyahu's strategy of using conflict with the new president to strengthen his position in Israel's vicious internal political wars. And while he's in the neighborhood, Obama should speak to the Palestinians as well, assuring both communities of his good intentions and motivating them to motivate their governments, which are showing little interest in meaningful peace negotiations. He also needs to convince all of them that he will not try to impose an agreement on Israel, as Palestinian leaders have demanded. To paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, it is time for Obama to gird up thy loins, and get thee to the Holy Land and speak to them all.

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