It's about trust, not settlements

Netanyahu didn't enjoy much trust going into this crisis, and it’s not just with Obama.

Netanyahu biden dinner 311 (photo credit: AP)
Netanyahu biden dinner 311
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai didmore to harm US-Israel relations than all of Israel’s detractors aroundthe world ever could when they decided it is more important to build1,600 houses in east Jerusalem than to have good relations with onehouse at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s hard to believe the timing of the announcement out of a ministryrun by Shas at the start of Vice President Joe Biden’smake-love-to-Israel visit authorizing construction in the haredi RamatShlomo neighborhood was simply an “innocent” matter of poor timing, asNetanyahu and Yishai would have us think.
By the way, if you say Ramat Shlomo is in east Jerusalem and thus notcovered by Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on construction beyond the1967 border, hold on a minute. Israeli and American media reportNetanyahu agreed there would be no construction announcements for eastJerusalem, either, as long as his promise wasn’t made public.
Netanyahu claims he was blindsided on what is obviously a verysensitive matter; if true, that raises a critical question: Who’s incharge? If Yishai is running a rogue operation and he still has hisjob, then the first Israeli premier with an MBA is a mighty poor manager.
Netanyahu, dismissing the incident as “regrettable” and “innocent,”apologized for the timing of the announcement but not its intent –building more housing for Shas’s constituents. Instead he tried to pinthe blame on the Obama administration, reportedly saying the crisis was“orchestrated” by Washington. He ordered a full-court-press to lobbythe Congress, the media and Jewish leaders to force the administrationto back down.
AIPAC QUICKLY saluted and started generating letters and press releasescalling on the administration to “defuse” the crisis. Not a word abouthow a good friend like Biden had been humiliated – a word used by bothgovernments. ADL, which initially accused the Netanyahu government ofcreating the crisis, quickly reversed itself and joined the attack on the administration.
Ambassador Michael Oren, a historian who should know better, calledthis the worst crisis since the 1975 “reassessment” by the Fordadministration. He apparently hadn’t heard about the 1990-92Shamir-Bush I-Baker imbroglio.
Netanyahu’s latest offensive is reminiscent of his efforts in the 1990sagainst the Clinton administration’s peace policies, but this time hedoesn’t have a Republican-led Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrichrunning interference.
Biden, an Israel visitor for many years and strong supporter, went toreassure Israelis publicly and privately of the depth and strength ofthe administration’s support, from the president on down, and toemphasize the shared commitment to keeping Iran from going nuclear.Under Obama, Biden told Israelis, the strategic relationship had been“expanded – not maintained, expanded.” For many years everyadministration has urged Israeli and Arab leaders to offer “nosurprises,” so when a good friend like Biden arrives and gets smackedin the face this way, it is easy to see why some might feel it wasdeliberate.
Israeli media have reported over the past year that the PrimeMinister’s Office has been a primary source of anti-Obama leaks. Thepresident hasn’t helped his cause by fumbling his Mideast policy in hisfirst year and not visiting Israel, where he badly needs to personallyconvince centrist Israelis that he and his administration are reliable,caring friends. That was part of Biden’s mission, and if that’s the wayan old friend is treated, Obama is not going to be very anxious tovisit.
THIS DISPUTE is not about settlements. Or even about rogue Shasbureaucrats trying – successfully, it turns out – to derail a nascentpeace process. It is about trust – a rapidly dissipating commodity.
That’s an old problem with Netanyahu. He did not enjoy a reservoir oftrust going into this crisis, and it’s not just with President Obamabut also with a pair of former US senators with staunch pro-Israelrecords, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. If he manages to alienate them,he’s got major tzoris in managing the bilateral relationship.
He lost his premiership the last time – as did Yitzhak Shamir beforehim – because Israeli voters lost confidence in his ability to handlerelations with what a Jerusalem Post editorial called “the only real friend Israel has in the entire world."
It said his government looks “completely incompetent” and its top priority must be “rebuilding that trust.”
You don’t do that by waging a lobbying campaign attacking the presidentof the United States. Hopefully he won’t try that when – and if – hecomes to Washington for next week’s AIPAC conference. New York Timescolumnist Tom Friedman wrote that if Netanyahu thinks he can “embarrassyour only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic politicalneed, with no consequences,” he has “lost total contact with reality.”
The only winners in this crisis are the rejectionists. Shas flexed itsmuscles, the settlers got more tribute, Netanyahu won brownie pointswith the nationalists and haredim, the Arab League had anI-told-you-so-moment and withdrew its hechsher for the now-suspended
talks, the Palestinians might name a park or soccer field for EliYishai, and the weak and ineffective Mahmoud Abbas gets to look tough.
And peace, if it every really had a chance, looks even more remote.