Editor's Notes: Crime and punishment

By deliberately inflating the Ramat Shlomo issue into a public crisis of faith in its ally, the Obama administration has encouraged Israel’s enemies.

netanyahu obama 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu obama 311
(photo credit: AP)
By deliberately inflating the Ramat Shlomo issue into a public crisis of faith in its ally, the Obama administration has given encouragement to Israel’s enemies, turned more of Israel’s dwindling ranks of friends against us, and potentially put every Israeli’s life in a little more danger.
The original Ramat Shlomo sin was Binyamin Netanyahu’s. And it was serious.
Not the “sin” of pursuing an Israeli government policy to build in Jerusalem. Agree with it or not, assert that it is Israel’s sovereign imperative or foolishly antagonistic, but either way it’s Israel’s decision.
No, the sin lay in announcing that you’re expanding a Jewish east Jerusalem neighborhood on the very day that one of your very best friends in the problematic administration of your most important strategic ally is in town for a goodwill visit. The sin lay in announcing the move when you know it runs counter to American policy, announcing it without warning, having assured the administration that you won’t surprise it with controversial actions as it struggles to mediate a resumption of the negotiations you seek with the Palestinians. And the sin was exacerbated because you’d already made exactly the same blunder before – releasing plans for the expansion of Gilo immediately after meeting with the president four months ago – and when you’d promised the president, after that screw-up, that you’d taken steps to prevent a recurrence.
Only those who lack so much as a passing familiarity with the running of the current Israeli government would question the authenticity of the embarrassed prime minister’s apology to Joe Biden, and his pleading assurance that he’d had no idea, ahead of time, that the Interior Ministry’s local planning committee was formally approving the construction of 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo at the very height of the Biden visit. Only those who lack so much as that passing familiarity find it impossible to believe that Eli Yishai, the interior minister, was not routinely alerted to such sensitive decisions in advance, and that Netanyahu had himself failed to put the appropriate warning systems into place, even after the November precedent. Of course such foolish incompetence is plausible. It can happen in some of the most efficient and best-run hierarchies, and few would describe the Israeli government as one of those.
Only those who insistently think the worst of Netanyahu, furthermore, could so much as contemplate that he would have done this deliberately. The last thing he would have wanted to do is embarrass Biden.
The last thing he would have wanted to do is provoke a major controversy over construction in east Jerusalem, having resisted US pressure to halt all building there, and being thoroughly aware of the incendiary nature of the issue. He’s not a pyromaniac. Only days before, he had telephoned Nir Barkat to quash the mayor’s plans for a controversial redevelopment plan in Silwan, just outside the Old City, that would have involved the demolition of dozens of illegally built Arab homes: “Drop it, Nir, it’s the last thing we need right now,” he essentially told the mayor in a telephone call shortly before Barkat was to address a press conference announcing the project.
The last thing he would have wanted to do was draw presidential and international attention to Ramat Shlomo, a neighborhood founded by the would-be peacemaking Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 that hardly anyone outside Israel had even heard of before last week, where 20,000 Israeli Jews had made their homes, hitherto headline-free.
All previous prime ministers in recent decades have built in east Jerusalem, Netanyahu noted accurately in the Knesset earlier this week, in a plaintive attempt at defense that amounted to an inadvertent admission of incompetence: Yes, all previous prime ministers had built in east Jerusalem – without incurring the incandescent fury of Israel’s best ally, without bringing the roof down. And you, Mr. Netanyahu, who merely wanted to add more homes to an existing, large, thriving neighborhood – in an area of the city, between French Hill and Ramot, that Mahmoud Abbas would never have contemplated coming under Palestinian control – managed through spectacular ineptitude to bring that long-term enterprise to a juddering halt.
There are those who are calling on Netanyahu to fire Yishai, the interior minister under whose watch this happened, an ultra-Orthodox political leader, but one who claims to have the wider interests of Israel at heart and who used Shas’s electoral weight to ensure he was also named a deputy prime minister. Go to Shas’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, explain the situation, and facilitate a dignified reshuffle, some are urging. In so doing, you send a message to that highly aggrieved Washington that you have internalized the seriousness of the fiasco.
But dismissing Yishai wouldn’t actually be fair. For principal blame for the initial Ramat Shlomo dispute rests not with Yishai’s lower-level committee and not even with the minister himself. It lies with Netanyahu. And nobody expects the prime minister to fire himself.
SO MUCH, however, for the original sin. For all its gravity, it is the reaction, the staggering overreaction, of the Obama administration, and most certainly and centrally of the president himself, that is the more shocking, counterproductive and potentially dangerous aspect of this crisis.
Biden was furious when he heard about Ramat Shlomo, condemned the decision in coordination with Obama, investigated and clarified and demanded answers... and moved on. He and his team rewrote his Tel Aviv University speech, in which he repeated his condemnation. But he went on to note that he appreciated the prime minister’s subsequent response. He said he was gratified to learn that new building in the neighborhood was potentially years away, which would hopefully give time for negotiations to supersede marginal decisions on where to build by resolving Jerusalem’s status altogether. And he got back to his visit’s primary purpose: reassuring Israel, and making plain to the Palestinians, the Arab world and the international community, that the United States stood firmly with the Jewish state.
And there the matter could have rested. Except that the president evidently decided that it should and could not. Hence Hillary Clinton’s 43-minute telephone call to Netanyahu last Friday, with its accusations that Israel had insulted America, threatened to undermine the very essence of the bilateral relationship, and needed to demonstrate afresh its commitment to that relationship. Hence senior White House adviser David Axelrod’s salvoes against Israel on America’s Sunday political talk shows.
THE US was angry. Israel gets it. Netanyahu didn’t want to freeze building in Jerusalem last year, and he doesn’t want to this year, and Washington saw an opportunity to now force him to do so.
The US is impatient. We get that too. While many, perhaps most Israelis, truly believe that prime ministers Rabin, Barak and Olmert traveled a great deal more than half way down the road in their efforts to reach a viable peaceful accommodation with the Palestinians, and that those efforts foundered, to the misfortune of all sides, on the rock of abiding Palestinian rejection of our very legitimacy here, the Obama presidency evidently feels differently. It is wrong and it ought to know better, but this administration apparently still believes that Israel had the capacity to go further, to offer even more than Olmert’s spurned West Bank-relinquishing, Jerusalem-dividing terms, and to win the Palestinians over.
The US, and most notably its president, do not trust Netanyahu. We can certainly understand that, in the light of the one-two Gilo and Ramat Shlomo public disputes, which probably merely confirmed warnings the Clinton administration had provided about the difficulties of dealing with him.
The US is not convinced that Netanyahu is serious about peacemaking, about the two-state solution he has publicly endorsed. Plenty of Israelis share precisely those concerns. Plenty of Israelis doubt that Netanyahu has chosen to truly commit himself to dramatic territorial compromise in the cause of an accommodation, at the expense of alienating the traditional Right, at the expense of his own settlement-championing ideology. Plenty of Israelis see him as a prime minister impossibly trying to keep everybody on whom he thinks he depends happy or at least happy-ish – the hawks, the settlers, the Labor Party, the Americans. Plenty of Israelis wonder whether he is capable of prioritizing properly – whether he has internalized that, if Iran is the key strategic threat to Israel’s very existence and a strong relationship with Washington is central to grappling with that threat, then he needs to ensure that nothing, but nothing, he does or allows to be done undermines that relationship.
And the US cannot afford to be humiliated by its allies. That, too, we appreciate. It cannot allow itself to be exposed as soft and incapable of imposing its will. How seriously can its enemies take an America that allows even tiny, dependent Israel to run rings around it?
ALL OF this we understand. And none of it merits the deliberate, disproportionate escalation by the Obama presidency of the Ramat Shlomo dispute, after Biden had left our country, and its counterproductive consequences for all – consequences that can, at best, only be partly and temporarily alleviated by the disingenuous “no crisis” tone adopted by the president and the administration in the last few days.
For one thing, the public bitterness of the American response shoves Abbas all the way back up his maximalist tree again. If America has turned on Israel, and is making demands on Israel that impact on core issues like Jerusalem, why would he volunteer compromise?
For another, it emboldens Palestinian and wider Arab extremism. If America publicly brands Israel worthy of such bitter condemnation, then the worst of the extremists can confidently expect their violence against Israel to be granted still more indulgence internationally than it already, terribly enjoys. Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran could well figure that Israel may not even get backing from the United States when it moves to try and control the next bloody onslaught, the seeds of which were already sprouting this week in Gaza, the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Old City.
Furthermore, when professions of absolute, “no space,” shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity – as expressed by Biden in his Tel Aviv speech – are rapidly followed by a public avalanche of criticism and allegations of disloyalty to the US interest, as expressed by the White House and State Department, how much weight can Israel henceforth afford to attach to such warm rhetorical assurances? If, on Tuesday, America stands side-by-side with Israel, Ramat Shlomo fiasco notwithstanding, how is it that by the weekend, when nothing substantive has changed, Israel can find itself buried under a global welter of headline accusations of near-betrayal, including talk of American soldiers’ lives at risk? And how comforted is Israel expected to be by the backtracking of a few days later, and the revived insistence that the bilateral bonds are unbreakable and unshakeable?
The issue of American soldiers’ well-being is among the most problematic aspect of the entire dreadful affair. Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of US Central Command, stated: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR [Centcom’s Area Of Responsibility]. Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of US partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaida and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizbullah and Hamas.”
Petraeus delivered a careful, soldierly assessment. But if part of the Obama administration’s fury with Israel stems from a hugely problematic interpretation of that kind of assessment, then the strategic relationship between Israel and at least this American leadership is in more trouble than most of us had previously considered possible.
Yes, indeed, Israel’s refusal to curl up and disappear – its refusal to allow itself to be defeated in conventional warfare, or by strategic terrorist onslaught, or via missile attacks on its civilian population, or through untenably dangerous territorial, demographic and security concessions at the negotiating table – rankles with the Arab world. Even the moderate Arab states, even those that have formally made peace with Israel, would much rather we were not here.
Israel’s insistence on defending itself is most certainly an irritant. It most certainly pushes ruthless regimes and proxy armies and terrorist organizations into devising new and more callous methods to try to harm us. And those who are hostile to Israel relentlessly seek to undermine the partnership Israel enjoys with its principal defender, the United States.
But it is precisely because Washington has understood that Israel – with its historic rights, its moral legitimacy, its determined upholding of democracy, its shared values and interests with the freedom-furthering West – must not be abandoned in the face of relentless military and diplomatic attack, that the US has for so long dependably stood by Israel against its enemies, even when other so-called friends have cut off military assistance and abandoned diplomatic solidarity in moments of real crisis.
It is because of America’s heroic international commitment to upholding and protecting free world values that US troops are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while Europe, in its weak, short-term misjudgment of self-interest, is too often prepared to capitulate to rapacious Islamic fundamentalism, America has thought and acted differently in those war zones and where Israel is concerned. America has recognized that Israel is on the front line of the free world’s battle against the bleak, murderous, tyrannical forces of Islamic extremism. And yes, in defense of its own interests, America has been ready to stand firm alongside Israel’s battling soldiers and embattled civilians.
Siding with Israel has galvanized anger and violence against the US, in our region and beyond. Well of course it has. But siding with Israel is siding with the values that are the essence of America. And abandoning Israel is abandoning those values.
Incidentally, nobody should have any delusions: Murderous Islamist hostility to the West in general and the US in particular would not be defused by the elimination of Israel. The purported imperative to destroy the Zionist enterprise is a convenient pretext for galvanizing the masses. If Israel were brought down, however, the fundamentalists would simply move onto the next spurious example of ostensible Western decadence to justify the assault.
THE RAMAT Shlomo affair was an extremely unfortunate but eminently containable dispute – indeed, it had been contained.
By inflating that issue into a public crisis of faith in its ally, the administration has given encouragement to Israel’s adversaries and turned more of Israel’s dwindling ranks of friends against us – another lost slice of the international community and, significantly, a potentially sizable chunk of the American public, notably including a proportion of the overwhelmingly Democratic-voting American Jewish public.
This is not a case of a frustrated administration helping Israel toward what it regards as necessary compromise via tough love. And its repercussions have gone far beyond teaching the mistrusted Netanyahu a lesson in correct behavior toward crucial allies.
It was a crisis, a coldly reignited crisis, and it remains a crisis even as it is being downplayed. It has emboldened our enemies and thus risked putting each and every Israeli citizen in more danger than they were a few days ago. It has rendered our country more vulnerable to those plentiful forces – forces antithetical to Israeli and to American values and interests – that want to see us wiped out.
Israel’s dysfunctional government slapped Joe Biden and the American government in the face. What the administration has done in return is far more sinister.