Analysis: From smooch to smack in 24 hours

Biden’s turnaround over Ramat Shlomo decision reflects poorly on Netanyahu’s management of government.

Netanyahu reassures (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Netanyahu reassures
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Back in July, at the height of the strain between the new Obama and Netanyahu administrations, the US protested to new Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren over plans to build 20 new apartment units at the Shepherd Hotel Compound in east Jerusalem.
This was soon after US President Barack Obama made his unprecedented call for a complete settlement halt, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton seemed to be walking away from agreements on the settlements Israel believed were reached between the Bush administration and the Sharon government.
At that time of tension and uncertainty, the Prime Minister’s Office is believed to have leaked to the media the thrust of the US protest to Oren, and then went on to reap political benefits.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu took the offensive and said, “I would like to reemphasize that united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel. Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged; this means – inter alia – that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.”
This was an important moment in the early days of the Netanyahu government, because by focusing attention on Washington’s disapproval of the plan to build apartments in a building legally owned by Jews in east Jerusalem, the Obama administration began to appear to an already skeptical Israeli public as unreasonable.
Netanyahu gambled that the public would conclude that while it was one thing for the US to say that Israel could not build in the West Bank, it was quite another to so strictly try to limit its ability to build within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem. The public, he seemed to conclude, would not accept it, and Obama would be perceived to be making irrational demands of Israel, while at the time not pressuring the Palestinians.
And the gamble paid off; Netanyahu was strengthened politically by the move.
The Obama administration erroneously thought that if there was any daylight between the US administration and the Netanyahu government, the public would turn on its own government rather than risk a rift with Washington. Netanyahu read it differently – and correctly – and deemed that on an issue like Jerusalem, the public would back him.
Eight months later, building in Jerusalem is again at the center of a public disagreement between Jerusalem and Washington, but this time things look completely different and Netanyahu has little to gain.
Rather than getting a positive bounce from the announcement of plans to build 1,600 units in Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem, the public dressing down Israel received from US Vice President Joe Biden – obviously infuriated by the announcement, which cast a heavy pall over his trip – put the government in an embarrassingly bad light.
Regardless of whether Netanyahu knew about the plans or not, either way he does not emerge looking good.
If he knew about the plan to make this announcement while Biden was here, then serious questions need to be asked about his judgment. But this is very unlikely, given that last week he asked Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to shelve a plan in Silwan that would have elicited similar reactions from the US.
But even if Netanyahu did not know about the plan, he does not come out looking much better, because then serious questions must be asked about his management and staff work.
Granted, the prime minister is obviously not appraised about the agenda of every district planning commission meeting in the country. But Jerusalem is not exactly Migdal Ha’emek or Lod, and someone should be paying close attention to all matters having to do with the capital.
When Haim Ramon was interior minister, there was a directive inside the ministry that any planning issues on Jerusalem needed to be brought to his attention.
When he was prime minister, Ehud Olmert instituted a procedure whereby all planning issues beyond the Green Line, but not east Jerusalem, needed his approval and that of the defense minister before moving forward, precisely to avoid the type of embarrassing situation that occurred Tuesday.
Besides, that something like this could pop out of the bureaucracy and poison a high-level US visit was not necessarily in the realm of former US secretary of state Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”
Announcement of new construction plans beyond the 1967 lines during high-level diplomatic visits is something that has happened repeatedly in the past, going back to visits by then-secretary of state James Baker, who complained in the early ’90s that every time he came to the region he was greeted by new settlement plans, all the way to trips here by Condoleezza Rice in 2008.
In fact, the media’s revelation just a day before of a recent Defense Ministry approval to build 112 units in Betar Illit should have sent someone scampering to see if there was anything similar in the pipeline elsewhere.
Netanyahu reportedly told his security cabinet Wednesday that this was a significant mess-up. Indeed.
The vice president of the United States comes here wanting to embraceIsrael, and – during the first 24 hours of his visit takes pains topublicly express his affection for the country – and ends up, to saveface, having to smack it on the back of the head like an errant child.
Biden talked about “no space” between Israel and the US Tuesdayafternoon, and just a few hours later issued a statement that revealednot a little space, but a yawning gap.
Netanyahu said he didn’t know about the committee’s plans, and that is believable. But he very well should have known.
That he didn’t raises some serious questions.