What makes Obama different ?

No other US leader has drawn a line in the sand about Jewish presence in J'lem.

limousine us israel flags 311 (photo credit: AP)
limousine us israel flags 311
(photo credit: AP)
The humiliating treatment accorded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to the White House and the 13-point diktat that he received from President Barack Obama have brought relations between the US and Israel to a point of crisis. But however this particular dispute is played out in the days and weeks ahead, observers must ponder what will follow during the rest of the Obama presidency.
Though much of the focus of Obama’s foreign policy has seemed to be a fixation with making nice with rivals and enemies, it has also been accompanied by what appears to be a calculated decision to create some distance between America and Israel. Indeed, just 15 months into the Obama presidency, the relationship seems to be as fractious as it has been in recent memory. In his first months, Obama tried and failed to topple Netanyahu’s newly elected coalition by issuing a demand for a settlement freeze. In an attempt to smooth things over with his country’s only ally, Netanyahu formally accepted the principle of a two-state solution and agreed to stop building in the West Bank, though not in Jerusalem.
But when an ill-timed announcement of a housing project in easternJerusalem coincided with the visit of Vice President Joe Biden earlierthis month, Obama pounced again. The incident was portrayed as afull-blown insult to America that required the stiffest condemnation.Indeed, the plan to build apartments for Jews in an existing Jewishneighborhood was greeted by a more spirited American denunciation thanObama had mustered for Iran’s stolen election or the brutal repressionof protesters in the streets of Teheran.
As the dispute enteredits third week, Obama’s anger and his determination to force Netanyahuto give in on the question of building in the eastern sector ofIsrael’s capital was apparently unabated. Yet this is hardly the firstdispute between the two countries. Every administration since 1967 hasproposed peace plans and negotiating strategies that Israel disliked oractively resisted. Genuine friends such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clintonand George W. Bush, as well as less friendly presidents such as JimmyCarter and George H.W. Bush, all pushed hard at times for acceptance ofunpalatable concessions.
BUT IN spite these precedents, Obamahas managed to go where no American president has gone before. For allof the problems created by all of his predecessors about settlements inthe West Bank, no previous American leader has ever chosen to draw aline in the sand about the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. It is truethat the US never recognized the annexation of the eastern sector ofthe city after Jerusalem’s unification in 1967. In fact, it has nevereven recognized western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But thenew Jewish neighborhoods that sprang up along the northern, eastern andsouthern outskirts of the city as well as those in the Old City werenever a source of contention even during the presidencies of Carter orthe elder Bush. Indeed, the notion that places such as Ramat Eshkol,Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo or even Ramat Shlomo (the site of the “insult” toBiden) are considered “settlements” by the US and thus no differentthan the most remote hilltop outpost deep in the West Bank is somethingthat has come as a complete surprise to most Israelis, let aloneAmerican supporters of Israel.
During the course of his first goat Netanyahu, Obama made it clear that, contrary to a promise given byGeorge W. Bush in 2004, he considered the bulk of settlements situatedclose to the 1967 line that Israelis believe they will keep even in theevent of a peace deal, to be just as illegitimate as more controversialcommunities. In the hope of defusing the argument, Netanyahureluctantly agreed to a freeze in these towns and villages, while stillmaintaining that Jerusalem could not be treated in the same way. ButWashington’s decision to jump on the Biden incident as an excuse todemand that the freeze be extended to eastern Jerusalem signals thatObama clearly believes that, like the big settlements of Ariel andMa’aleh Adumim, the homes of the approximately 200,000 Jews who live ineastern Jerusalem are also on the table.
IT IS far from clearwhat Obama thinks he can achieve with these demands. DespiteNetanyahu’s concessions on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority isstill refusing to negotiate directly with Israel. Indeed, the so-called“proximity talks” that Obama was in such a lather to revive withfurther Israeli concessions showed little promise. The circumstancesthat have always prevented the PA from signing any agreement thatlegitimized a Jewish state within any borders have not changed. Evenmore to the point, since Obama has followed every concession withdemands for more, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate since his failureto do so is inevitably rewarded with more pressure on Israel?
But despite that fact that his diplomatic offensive has virtually nochance of success, Obama has still done something that will permanentlyalter Middle Eastern diplomacy. By treating the Jewish presence ineastern Jerusalem as a vast illegal settlement, the continued growth ofwhich is an alleged impediment to peace, Obama has made it impossiblefor any Arab leader to ever accept Israel’s possession of this part ofthe city. This not only makes the already near-impossible task offorging peace that much harder, it is a crushing blow to decades ofIsraeli and American Jewish efforts to force international recognitionof a unified Jerusalem.
This year, along with the conventional four questions of the PassoverSeder, some Americans are starting ask themselves “Why is thispresident different from all other presidents?”
The answer is that Barack Obama has now established opposition toIsrael’s hold on its capital as a cornerstone of American Middle Eastpolicy in a way that is completely new as well as dangerous. Thosewondering whether or not this development ought to cause them toreevaluate their political loyalties might want to remember the closingrefrain of Passover Seders down through the centuries: “Next year inJerusalem.”
The writer is executive editor of Commentary magazine and a contributor to its blog at www.commentarymagazine.com. jtobin@commentarymagazine.com