My Word: Meanwhile in Jerusalem...

President Barack Obama seems to have misread the political, geographical and historic maps.

By
March 20, 2010 21:47
A Palestinian worker stands guard in front of hous

ramat shlomo construction east jerusalem 311. (photo credit: AP)

I don’t know whether I want Barack Obama to read this piece or not. On the one hand, nobody – from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu down to this not-always-humble-enough journalist – wants to offend the president of the United States. On the other hand, I think Obama needs to hear some home truths. About my home.

I almost missed the flare-up of the US-Israel diplomatic crisis. Like Netanyahu, on Friday, March 12 I had assumed that it was behind us. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spent 45 minutes on the phone just before Shabbat chastising the prime minister. Then she went behind Joe Biden’s back and in front of CNN cameras to fan the flames and turn the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood building project from a diplomatic incident stemming from unfortunate timing into a casus belli, giving the Palestinians, in effect, the go-ahead to launch the next intifada. It doesn’t take much. A signal from the US administration that Netanyahu is totally out of favor in Washington is more than enough.

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It was as though Clinton (obviously acting on Obama’s instructions) had reached out and provided the Palestinians with a Molotov cocktail. They decided when and where to throw it.


HENCE ON March 16, when Israelis were celebrating “Good Deeds Day,” the Palestinians declared a “Day of Rage,” turning the metaphoric flames into real fires, rioting in east Jerusalem and attacking buses in Jaffa (which shows you that what the Arabs mean by “settlements” has nothing to do with the 1967 borders).

There is a certain irony in the way that while some 70,000 Israelis dedicated the day to Shari Arison’s philanthropic project – doing voluntary work, cleaning up public areas, coaching Jewish and Arab youth and children, and helping the elderly – the Palestinians devoted yet another day to trying to destroy the Jewish state instead of peacefully building up their own.

Much discussion has been conducted in Israel about Obama’s motives: Did he think, for example, that he could improve the starting position for the “proximity talks” by forcing Israel to make more concessions at the outset under the guise of “confidence building” measures? Did he want to deflect attention from his domestic and other foreign policy failures? Is he under pressure, having already won the Nobel Peace Prize, to bring about the elusive peace agreement at almost any price (and I have my part-paranoid/ part-parochial suspicions just which side will be the one to pay that price).

Even without the benefit of being as close to the president as Atlantic columnist Jeffrey Goldberg reportedly is, my first thought was that Obama was trying to find a way to oust Netanyahu and replace him with Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who had, like Ehud Olmert before her, proven more malleable in talks with the PA. It's not a nice thought but, unable to get it completely out of my head, I am keeping it at the back of my mind, at least until the US president does something to prove that he recognizes that Netanyahu came to power in democratic elections. This is a rarity in the Middle East but something the resident of the White House should know about and appreciate.

Obviously Obama misread the Israeli political map. In fact, he does not seem very good at map reading altogether. I wonder if he even knows where Ramat Shlomo is.

IN ISRAEL, the consensus is that Jerusalem is the united capital, including bustling neighborhoods like French Hill, Pisgat Ze’ev, Neveh Ya’acov and Gilo. As Netanyahu pointed out in his Knesset speech last week: For more than 40 years, all previous governments have built in these areas and did not consider them up for negotiation.

The alliance with the US is natural and important, but not enough for Israel to give up Jerusalem for. Nothing is that important. Jerusalem has been at the heart of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. It’s not the sort of bond one breaks just to give Barack Hussein Obama a better chance of a second term in office.

I know only one resident of Ramat Shlomo. She is a kindergarten teacher who moved there attracted, I assume, by its larger and more affordable apartments around the time she had her fifth child. Clinton might want to discuss with her how she manages to keep the peace among 28 kids and still turn up to work every morning with a beatific smile. The secretary of state might be surprised to learn that this preschool educator is not a greater threat to world peace than, say, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But you can forget about any real US action against the nuclearizing Islamist state in the near future. Obama and Clinton are too busy tackling the real issues, like how many apartments are being built in a Jerusalem neighborhood.

I spent the Saturday night only vaguely aware of the increased depths of the crisis. I was strolling down memory lane.

I had been invited by a friend from my student days at the Hebrew University, more than 20 years ago, to an evening of Jewish songs. His sister, a former flatmate of mine in the French Hill dorms (which I now realize Obama might consider occupied territory), was also there. The families of both my host and his sister live in Ramot – over the Green Line but so close to my apartment in an undisputed part of Jerusalem that I completely misjudged the time it would take to get there and arrived unfashionably early.

The evening took me back to the good old days when we often crowded into one dorm room or another to either sing together or discuss the topics of the day: the Likud ascension to power, the birth of the Shas religious party, the war in Lebanon and the POWs (three of whom, President Obama, have yet to come home if you want a good humanitarian issue to tackle).

I recalled my former flatmate’s wedding in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, not far from where the Hurva Synagogue, destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, was rededicated last week.

My friends moved to Ramot, like the kindergarten teacher in Ramat Shlomo, not out of ideology but because it was affordable. The first student friends who married moved to Ramot A, the second and third couples to Ramot B. The neighborhood grew to accommodate newlyweds, much as (dare I mention it?) Har Homa does now.

Their street is pleasantly middle-class and suburban. It doesn’t look like the sort of place deserving of presidential censure. The residents don’t so much symbolize an obstacle to peace as what happens when never-rebel students reach middle age.

For we all grow up. And some, Mr. President, grow wiser as they grow older. Not more petulant and in need of instant gratification.

No doubt ultimately a way will be found to put this crisis behind us. As we say in Hebrew, “Avarnu et Par’o, na’avor gam et zeh” – “We got through Pharaoh, we’ll get through this too.”


It is a particularly appropriate pre-Passover sentiment, along with the traditional conclusion of the Seder night: “Beshana haba’a BeYerushalayim, beshana haba’a BeYerushalayim habnuya,” – “Next year in Jerusalem, next year in rebuilt Jerusalem.”

That, President Obama, is meant as a promise, not a threat.


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