After the storm, quiet. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, pummeled two weeks ago in Washington, took a few days off this week, did not yet provide the US administration with the responses it is seeking and the world did not end.
It seems increasingly that in Jerusalem and Washington, both sides are acting on a bit of a time delay.
When US Vice President Joe Biden was in the country last month, and Israel announced on a Tuesday that it would build 1,600 new units in the northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, it took until that Friday, and a blistering phone call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Netanyahu, for the full scope of US anger to be registered.
While at first it appeared that Biden was going to accept the prime minister’s apologies and everything would return to normal, the penny belatedly dropped for someone in the White House who realized the administration had a golden opportunity to make a dramatic change of policy on Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, and advocated coming down on Netanyahu like a ton of bricks.
This, just two months after US Middle East envoy George Mitchell explained Israeli building in east Jerusalem, saying in a US television interview with Charlie Rose that “the Israelis are not going to stop settlements in, or construction in east Jerusalem. They don’t regard that as a settlement because they think it’s part of Israel.”
Asked by Rose if the US was going to “let Israel go ahead” with that policy, Mitchell replied, “You say ‘let them go ahead.’ It’s what they regard as their country. They don’t say they’re letting us go ahead when we build in Manhattan.”
He also added that one could enter into a legal dispute over the matter for the “next 14 years.”
None of this, of course, gave any indication of tremendous US impatience with Israel over east Jerusalem construction. But still, someone in the White House – after a bit of a time lag after the Biden/Ramat Shlomo incident – sensed an opportunity and pounced.
THE WHITE House, by the way, is a term that conjures up an image of a united body that thinks and acts as a coordinated whole. Over the week, however, reports have emerged of a White House that, despite the unified public front on Israel, is entangled in deep disagreement over how exactly to proceed.
Laura Rozen, in a blog on the Politico Web site, reports a “fierce debate on Israel” inside the Obama administration since Netanyahu’s tense visit. According to Rozen, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross “is staking out a position that Washington needs to be sensitive to Netanyahu’s domestic political constraints, including over the issue of building in east Jerusalem, in order to not raise new Arab demands, while other officials, including some aligned with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, are arguing Washington needs to hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and to preserve the Obama administration’s credibility.”
To illustrate just how intense the debate is, Rozen raised the bugaboo of dual loyalty, mentioning it by name and quoting “one US official” as saying Ross “seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to US interests... And he doesn’t seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this administration.”
She further quoted the official saying that during the dustup in Washington, “Ross was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than preemptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi’s coalition’s red lines.”
While in this report, the White House fault lines were drawn between Ross and Mitchell over how far and hard to push, other reports have the lines drawn between National Security Adviser James Jones and Mitchell over whether the administration should step in and impose a solution on the two sides (Jones), or favor direct negotiations, with the US offering “bridging proposals” when the time appears right (Mitchell).
Either way, the administration position is not as monolithic as it may appear in daily State Department or White House briefings, and this can also help to explain the zigzags in the administration’s atmospherics and public statements.
One day Mitchell is publicly explaining that Israel won’t stop building in east Jerusalem; the next day he is calling for it to do just that.
One day Biden is talking about how daylight between Israel and the US precludes progress in the Middle East; the next day Clinton makes it known publicly that she chewed out the prime minister. One day Obama treats Netanyahu like an unwanted guest, and the next day his top adviser is saying that no snub was intended.
Far from embarking on a well-thought-out diplomatic plan, the administration seems to be improvising on the run.
AND THE administration is not alone. In Jerusalem, too, there seems to be a whole lot of improvising going on.
First of all, there was Jerusalem’s own time lag. Ten days ago, following Netanyahu’s two meetings with Obama in the White House, diplomatic sources talked about a great sense of urgency, and how Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were holed up in the secure embassy in Washington to draw up immediate answers to Obama’s demands.
Netanyahu’s schedule in Washington that day – the last of his visit to the US – was altered; media appearances, important to getting his point across directly to the American people, were canceled; and his flight home was delayed.
In the end, Netanyahu headed home without answering Obama on whether he would stop construction in east Jerusalem, release Palestinian prisoners, transfer more territory to complete Palestinian control or agree to talk about settlements, borders, Jerusalem and refugees with the US in the role of final arbiter.
But even though he wasn’t pushed into providing immediate answers without adequately consulting with his inner cabinet, the so-called septet, the sense of urgency continued just prior to takeoff, when it was reported that he would convene the septet two hours after landing. The US wanted an immediate answer to take to the Arab League meeting on Saturday, and Netanyahu, at first blush, seemed hell-bent on obliging.
But somewhere between landing in Tel Aviv at 5 p.m. on Thursday and convening the septet two hours later, someone seems to have sobered up and said, “What’s the hurry, where’s the fire?” The septet was convened Friday and broke up just before Shabbat without any answers. It convened again on Sunday, before Pessah, and also did not reach any conclusions or issue the much-awaited response.
Then came the Seder, and the intermediate days of Pessah; now it is Shabbat, and on Monday night begins the final day of Pessah. The septet is not meeting during this period, and the government is signaling that it will decide in its own time and not be rushed into anything rash.
IN THE meantime, however, the Palestinians are sending their own message: that things are urgent, and that if the process does not move, and move quickly, the ground will begin to burn.
Israel made clear it believed that nothing overly dramatic would happen if it waited with its response to the US. What did happen was some stone-throwing Palestinian protests against settlements and the security fence, opening shots in what the Fatah leadership is calling a “popular intifada.” The more the government delays, the more the Palestinians are likely to protest to give the world, and Israel, notice that they are not going to sit back and wait.
Talk of an intifada-minus has set some officials in Jerusalem wondering whether, amid increasing international isolation and reports that the US will impose a solution, the worse things get on the ground, the better the Palestinians’ negotiating position becomes – if, indeed, they are interested in negotiating at all.
With the world not exactly in a forgiving posture toward Israel nowadays, this is the time, from a Palestinian perspective, for low-level violence to keep attention focused here and reinforce the idea that if there is no agreement, there will be instability. Remember that the Obama administration has bought into the argument that instability here is bad for the US because it provides a cause and a rallying point to recruit extremists who are fighting US soldiers from Iraq to Afghanistan.
But according to these officials in Jerusalem, what the Palestinians
are truly dreaming about is an imposed solution – believing that the US
is now leaning more toward its position on issues such as Jerusalem and
borders than toward Israel’s.
If that’s the case, then expect low-level violence to keep the world
focused, and also a failure of negotiations, since the Palestinians may
very much feel they have more to gain from an imposed US solution than
in direct talks with Israel.
The Palestinians know what they can get via negotiations. Ehud Olmert
showed them that by offering some 95 percent of the territory, a
one-to-one swap for most of the rest, the symbolic return of some
refugees and a share in the international consortium that will control
Jerusalem’s “holy basin.” But, as PA President Mahmoud Abbas famously
said, the gaps were still “too wide.”
Now, it seems, he is maneuvering to see whether he can’t get more when the US, and the world, steps in.