Binyamin Netanyahu had thought that the crisis was over.
The prime minister had apologized. He had sworn that the bureaucratic approval for 1,600 new homes at Ramat Shlomo last Tuesday had not been deliberately timed to humiliate visiting Vice President Joe Biden. He had vowed to institute an oversight process so that the same kind of discomfiting incident could not recur. He had assured Biden that the new construction at Ramat Shlomo – an area of Jerusalem over the Green Line, but certain to remain under Israeli control in any accommodation with the Palestinians – would not start for years.
And the vice president had indicated that he was largely mollified.
Biden’s comments in his visit’s main speech, at Tel Aviv University, reiterated his condemnation of the decision to build more homes, but also included his appreciation of Netanyahu’s subsequent steps to defuse the issue. He also restated that powerful assertion that “there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel when it comes to security.”
Speaking to Reuters on his plane on Friday, Biden even went so far as to vouch for Netanyahu’s peacemaking intentions. Asked whether he thought the prime minister was sincere about negotiating peace with the Palestinians, he replied, “Yes, I do.”
And there the matter might have rested. There, Jerusalem believed, the matter would rest.
But then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton telephoned Netanyahu. She called, for three-quarters of an hour on Friday, to “berate,” “rebuke,” “warn” and “condemn” Israel – depending on your newspaper of choice – for the “insult to the United States,” and for sending, in the words of her spokesman, “a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship.”
If Washington’s decision to escalate the dispute was shocking to the prime minister, then the bitter thrust of the secretary’s language was even more so. She was choosing to blame Israel not merely for words and deeds that the US deems counterproductive to Israel’s interests, but for conduct unbecoming of an ally, for harming the relationship with America and, by extension, harming America and its interests as well.
Even with the fullest cognizance of the Obama administration’s strategic effort to remake its relations with the Arab world, and its frustrations with Netanyahu for failing to fully share its optimism about the “willing partners” Biden referenced on the Palestinian side, this is strikingly harsh and heavy stuff.
The United States has, for so long and so often, been Israel’s chief defender against concerted international diplomatic attack. Its unstinting moral and practical support has been central, too, to Israel’s deterrent capability in this most hostile and ruthless of regions.
It knows full well the impact its secretary of state’s words will have in these contexts – liberating Israel’s critics to drastically escalate their diplomatic, legal and economic assaults, and potentially emboldening military enemies. Words in this neck of the woods have consequences – real, life-and-death consequences.
“You shouldn’t think that President Obama is your enemy, and I hope to goodness you know that Hillary is not,” former president Bill Clinton told the Saban Forum in Jerusalem four months ago. And yet she escalated a crisis that Biden, her superior in the administration hierarchy, had indicated was resolved.
It was self-evident that Netanyahu’s “stupidity not malice” explanation for Ramat Shlomo was accurate. Just days earlier, he had moved effectively to shut down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s incendiary plan to demolish dozens of Arab homes in Silwan.
And yet, acting doubtless on the orders of her president, she resorted to what the ADL – no hysterical critic of the Obama administration – termed “gross overreaction.”
As Israel well knows, the US does not support
building for Jews over the Green Line – even within the boundaries of Israeli-claimed sovereign Jerusalem. Plainly the administration was enraged not only by the timing of the construction announcement, but by its essence – a maintenance of an Israeli policy that defies the US government’s assessment of where both Israeli and American interests lie.
But perhaps, too, the Obama administration has recognized an opportunity in the Ramat Shlomo crisis, an opportunity that required deepening rather than defusing the dispute – an opportunity to convey to the unloved Netanyahu, more starkly than ever before, the fateful choice he faces and the urgency of making it.
Does he want to expand home-building for Jews in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, maintain the support of the domestic political Right, offer less than the Americans would wish him to offer at the peace table should direct talks ever resume, and watch Israel’s ties to the United States falter even as Iran closes in on the bomb?
Or is he prepared to halt such building, marginalize the local hardliners, work to create a climate conducive to negotiated progress with the Palestinians, and bolster the partnership with the US, the better to ensure an effective response to the Iranian threat?
Washington may well bet that Netanyahu, being Netanyahu, will even now try desperately to please everyone – somehow bidding to square circles via a mixture of half-steps and articulacy, in order to keep the local hawks on board and at once try to heal the fractures with Washington.
But it may also be aiming to make that task unfeasible. Likud hard-liner Danny Danon asserted on Sunday that Israel is “not a client state” of the US and needs to follow its own policies as it sees fit.
But many Israelis think differently, and regard Israel, especially amid the current global battle against Iranian-spearheaded Islamic extremism, indeed to be a client state – to be existentially dependent on its relationship with the United States. Many Israelis, Washington may also gauge, would rather reconsider their prime minister than their ties to the US.
With Labor starting to mutter about deadlines for diplomatic progress, and with the Israeli public perceived to be deeply invested in the best possible relationship with the US, Clinton, and more pertinently, her president, may believe they have Netanyahu cornered: Settlements or us.
How can one reconcile the bitter, accusatory, public dressing-down –
which will be seized upon so delightedly and exploited so effectively
not merely by those who oppose Netanyahu, but by those who seek to
damage Israel – with the insistent assurances, from Obama on down,
including Biden last week, that the US commitment to Israel is
unbreakable, that the partnership is unshakable, that the relationship,
as Biden put it, is “impervious to any shifts in either country and
either country’s partisan politics. No matter what challenges we face,
this bond will endure”?
How do you reconcile that, even if you
accept that the Obama White House is convinced that Israel, through its
building beyond the Green Line, is badly harming itself, undermining
the battle to thwart Iran, and damaging America’s interests in the
It’s not easy. It’s not easy, no matter how persuasively it can be argued that Netanyahu brought this on himself.