Politics & Policy

The Worst Crisis in 35 Years?

What's going on with the Obama administration and Israel?

From Vice President Joseph Biden’s criticism of Israeli settlements to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s list of demands, the Obama administration has been rough on America’s ally, Israel, in recent days. National Review Online asked experts in Middle East policy what this turn means for the region.

MATTHEW R. J. BRODSKY

The authorization of the 1,600 new housing units in Jerusalem during Biden’s trip caught Netanyahu by surprise. But the unusually harsh language used by the Obama administration is the kind typically reserved for rogue nations, not longstanding allies.

 

#ad#The root cause of the problem is that Obama and Netanyahu have different priorities and strategies. The White House feels that making progress in the peace process is an urgent priority and believes a breakthrough is possible. Moreover, Obama feels it is more incumbent upon Israel than the Palestinians to demonstrate a dedication to peace.

Netanyahu believes progress is not possible given the split in Palestinian politics between the PA and Hamas, and Palestinian redlines, which remain unchanged since 2000. Iran’s nuclear threat is Netanyahu’s first priority. Obama’s approach to the Middle East, where he is engaging with regimes like Iran and Syria while castigating Israel, is seen as troubling in Jerusalem, especially since Obama has nothing to show for his engagement.

A Netanyahu-led government was not Obama’s first choice. It is harder to extract concessions, despite the fact that a breakthrough on the Palestinian side is nowhere in sight. Another crisis lies in wait as the clock continues to tick on Iran’s nuclear program.

Matthew R. J. Brodsky is director of policy at the Jewish Policy Center and editor of inFocus Quarterly.

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DANIEL DORON

Once Iran goes nuclear — which will be pretty soon, it seems — it will control the supply of Gulf oil and its price. An entirely dependent Europe and Japan and a partially dependent U.S. could experience a transfer of wealth that would make the current transfer of wealth from the West to the Arabs pale in comparison. Islamic radicalism would not have to engage in a strenuous jihad against Christendom; an economically bankrupt Europe and Japan and a critically weakened U.S. would be pushovers.

Faced with such a game-changing strategic threat, it is embarrassing to watch the U.S. State Department and its president build such a lather over some decision by an Israeli minister to build a few houses in a disputed area that is smaller in size than the area of the White House. You would think American policymakers could find better ways to show their resolve than to weaken and alienate the one dependable ally the U.S. has in the Middle East.

#ad#Think about the stakes. Think about priorities. Think how ludicrous America and its president, the shields of the free world, must seem to their enemies; and weep.

Daniel Doron is founder and director of the Israel Center for Social and Economic Progress.

DOUGLAS J. FEITH

As the Obama administration quarrels so heatedly and publicly with Israel, its goals are not clear.

The main impediments to Palestinian-Israeli peace are on the side of the Palestinians. Their Authority lacks authority, and their moderates aren’t moderate. The Palestinian Authority has been handicapped by self-inflicted damage from corruption and the loss of its control of Gaza to Hamas, with which it is at war. The PA cannot even claim to speak for a substantial majority of the Palestinians, and PA leaders, rather than working to isolate Hamas followers as extremists, are trying to compete with them in anti-Zionism. Palestinian Authority leaders are refusing to negotiate directly with the Israeli government, and when they do engage in peace diplomacy, they make demands — for the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, for example — that even leaders of the Israeli Left reject as cynical insistence on Israeli suicide.

President Obama is not pressing the PA to change its principles and practices to make a consensual peace possible. His fight with Israel effectively absolves the Palestinian side from blame for the lack of peace. This vindicates the Palestinian hard line.

The Obama administration evidently thinks it is more important now to soften up the Israeli government. But President Obama has picked a fight about the construction of homes for Jews in Jerusalem. Supporting such construction is not a hard-line position. Across Israel’s political spectrum there is support for Jews living in Jerusalem and retaining sovereignty over the city.  

     

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This slap at Israel is one of a number of strange shots that Obama administration officials have taken at U.S. allies and friends abroad. The administration has poked its fingers in the eyes of leaders from Britain, Japan, Poland, Colombia, and elsewhere — and now Israel. Meanwhile, the Obama team has given a cold shoulder to pro-democracy advocates in China and Iran. There must be a larger idea at work here. The president should explain his strategy.  

Douglas Feith, a former under secretary of defense for policy, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and author of War and Decision: Inside the Pentagon at the Dawn of the War on Terrorism.

#ad#DANIEL PIPES

On the surface, that the Obama administration decided one fine day to pick a fight with the government of Israel looks like an unmitigated disaster for the Jewish state. What could be worse than its most important ally provoking the worst crisis (according to the Israeli ambassador to Washington) since 1975?

A closer look, however, suggests that this gratuitous little spat might turn out better for Jerusalem than for the White House.

(1) It concerns not a life-and-death issue, such as the menace of Iran’s nuclear buildup or Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas predations, but the triviality of the timing of a decision to build new housing units in Israel’s capital city. Wiser heads will insist that White House amateurs end this tempest in a teapot and revert to normal relations.

(2) If Obama et al. hope to bring down Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, they can’t count Knesset seats. Peeling away Labor will lead to its replacement by rightist parties.

(3) An Israeli consensus exists to maintain sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, so provoking a crisis on this issue strengthens Netanyahu.

(4) Conversely, U.S. histrionics make the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas more reluctant to enter into Washington’s counterproductive negotiations.

(5) A recent poll of American voters shows an astonishing eight-to-one sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians, so picking a fight with Israel harms Obama politically — precisely what a president sinking in the polls and attempting to transform one-sixth of the economy does not need.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

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DAVID PRYCE-JONES

From the outset, the Obama policy towards the Palestinians has been a vivid illustration of wishful thinking. As things stand, the Palestinians have no interest in peace. The split between the nationalist Fatah and the Islamist Hamas has elements of civil war. Both those parties are profiting from the stand-off. Fatah is receiving huge subsidies from the United States and the European Union, and Gen. Keith Dayton is training and arming its forces. Symmetrically Hamas is receiving huge subsidies, arms, and training from Iran. A peace process — a two-state solution — risks ending a situation nicely profitable to both sides of the Palestinian equation, and this is not in their interest. As long as the inter-Palestinian struggle lasts, Israel can only hope to keep violence under control by means of crisis management.

#ad#Sixteen hundred new homes in east Jerusalem are neither here nor there, except to the Palestinian workers who would be paid to build them. One day, the interests of both Fatah and Hamas will coincide in benefiting from peace, and then a genuine process of negotiation with Israel may begin. The row taking place between the Obama administration and Israel has no real substance and is only a stage in reality enforcement for American policymakers who should never have been so naïve in the first place.

David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of NATIONAL REVIEW.

JONATHAN SCHANZER

The current diplomatic crisis between Israel and the United States is a manufactured one. President Obama chose to exploit Israel’s ill-timed announcement to build new homes in east Jerusalem as an opportunity to extract concessions from Israel and to demonstrate to the Arab world that the White House can rein in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Obama, who has scant experience in Middle East diplomacy, has miscalculated on two fronts:

In creating this crisis, Obama has further weakened his standing on the Israeli street. And that’s not an easy thing to do. As of September 2009, according to one poll, Obama’s popularity stood at roughly 4 percent in Israel. Among other incomprehensions, Israelis (and many Americans) fail to understand why urban planning in Jerusalem infuriates the president but the Iranians building a nuclear bomb elicits his “outstretched hand.” Indeed, Israel does not trust Obama and will be reluctant to follow him if and when the possibility for a viable peace deal ever emerges.

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Peace is not possible right now. The Palestinians — Hamas and Fatah — are still engaged in a low-level war. This means that the entire Palestinian side of the peace equation is in disarray. Even if Obama did persuade Netanyahu to make major concessions (unlikely), the Middle East would be no closer to peace. In other words, Obama’s big move to checkmate Israel was wildly premature.

This whole mess could have been avoided if Israel had not announced its plans to build in Jerusalem when the vice president was in town. But, more importantly, it could end now if the president would simply stop trying to manipulate Israel.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president of research for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

#ad#BENJAMIN WEINTHAL

The Obama administration’s pressure-point campaign to turn Israel’s planned construction of 1,600 apartments in an east Jerusalem neighborhood into the sine qua non of Middle East peace conforms to Europe’s woefully flawed Israeli-Palestinian policy. Dissolution of Israeli settlements in the disputed territories has been the be-all and end-all of Europe’s incurably naïve strategy, at the expense of attention to Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

To the Bush administration, and Dick Cheney in particular, the highly jingoistic Islamic regime was the first-priority obstacle to greater stability in the region. Obama and Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, mirror the EU’s longstanding, anti-Israeli view of settlements as the chief impediment to peace. Yet Tehran’s proxy terror troops in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and in Gaza (Hamas) were responsible for Israel’s two self-defense wars in 2006 and 2008–2009. Obama’s bizarre fixation on an apartment complex even as Iran races to develop a nuclear arsenal and arm its subsidiaries shows that his administration’s policy is limping on both legs.

By slouching toward the EU with his strong-armed criticism of Israel, Obama has opened more floodgates of Israel-bashing across Europe. The major European media — and leading politicians — are largely devouring the rift between Israel and the White House. Widely considered to be the most pro-Israel EU head of state, German chancellor Angela Merkel has followed Obama’s lead and exploited U.S-Israeli tensions to slam Israel during her visit to Lebanon. To repair U.S-Israeli relations and promote security in the region, Obama has an escape hatch: painful and crippling sanctions to destabilize the Ahmadinejad/Khamenei regime and advance Iran’s pro-democracy movement.

Benjamin Weinthal is the Jerusalem Post’s correspondent in Berlin.

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