As Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads to Washington this weekend to address the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, relations between the U.S. and Israel appear to be headed for a train wreck. Indeed, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the U.S., told Israeli diplomats in a conference call over the weekend that U.S.-Israel relations face their worst crisis in more than three decades.
Here’s what happened and why.
During Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Jerusalem last week to show American support for Israel, some lower-level officials in the Israeli bureaucracy decided it would be a good time to announce the construction of 1,600 new homes in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority immediately went ballistic, calling the announcement a threat to peace. The vice president was deeply offended and told Netanyahu that the timing of the announcement made the Israelis appear to be trying to sabotage the beginning of new peace talks with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu immediately apologized, saying he had not authorized the announcement to be made during the VP’s trip and was not trying to derail or disrupt the visit. Biden appeared to accept the apology, and Netanyahu thought the problem had been resolved. The main focus of Biden’s visit, after all, was supposed to be how to work together to handle the existential threat of Iran building nuclear weapons.
Since then, however, the situation has worsened significantly. The State Department called in Ambassador Oren last week and reprimanded him severely for the Israeli housing announcement. Three days after the incident, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Netanyahu and reamed him out for forty-three minutes, saying the Obama administration saw the housing announcement as “insulting.” State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley confirmed for reporters on Friday that Clinton told Netanyahu that the U.S. had “strong objections to Tuesday’s announcement, not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance,” that the U.S. “considers the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship — and counter to the spirit of the Vice President’s trip,” and that this action has “undermined trust and confidence in the peace process, and in America’s interests.”
Secretary Clinton then gave Netanyahu a list of specific demands that Israel must meet for the U.S. to be convinced that she is serious about peace with the Palestinians.
Yesterday on NBC’s Meet The Press, White House senior advisor David Axelrod ratcheted up tensions further: “I think both the vice president and the secretary of state reflected the president’s thinking — this was an affront, an insult [by Israel], but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to this region. And for this announcement to come at this time was very, very destructive.”
First things first: The Israeli government has every right to build homes for its own citizens in its own capital. Period.
Second, the Obama administration is dramatically overreacting to this incident, to its discredit. The president, vice president and secretary of state are tipping their hand with their words and actions. They clearly don’t believe in Israeli sovereignty over its own capital. They want to force Israel to divide its capital, and they are determined to apply intense pressure on Israel to give away more land to its enemies, even though two recent ”land for peace” efforts (southern Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005) were disasters for Israel and led to two serious wars.
The Obama administration is making an enormous and dangerous mistake. Jerusalem is and should always remain the undivided capital of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. Washington is wrong to use such hysterical and heavy-handed measures to berate Israel and to try to force her to divide her own capital. Doing so will lead to another major war, not to peace. The real threat to American and allied interests in the Middle East is Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear weaponry, not Israel’s efforts to build houses for Jewish people in a Jewish neighborhood in the Jewish capital.
Third, Prime Minister Netanyahu was right to apologize over the timing of the announcement, and not the substance. To his credit, the PM did not back down from Israel’s right to build these homes. But he properly acknowledged that it was not helpful for the announcement to be made right in the middle of the vice president’s trip.
Fourth, the management system within the prime minister’s office is not functioning properly and needs to be fixed immediately, or other diplomatic disasters will occur. I fully accept Netanyahu’s explanation that he did not authorize the timing of this announcement, and was blind-sided by it. After all, he’s not geopolitically suicidal. He had no interest in sabotaging Biden’s trip. Indeed, he had gone to great lengths to invite the VP and orchestrate a positive visit. But Secretary Clinton is right when she says that ultimately the prime minister is responsible for what happens within his government. Numerous important decisions are not being well handled with the PM’s office: Strategic planning functions appear to be bogged down; strategic communications efforts are not nearly what they should be, given the urgency of the moment. The PM needs to reorganize his office quickly and make sure the right people are in the right places making the right decisions and bringing him the right information in a timely, effective way. Too much is at stake for anything less.
Fifth, it is critical that all Americans who love Israel and believe the Israelis are our best friends and allies in a highly volatile region show their strong support for the Jewish State at this critical moment. Conservatives who have been rock-solid supporters of strong U.S.-Israel relations would do well to speak out forcefully on the following messages:
Assert that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and should never be divided.
Call on the Obama administration to stop pressuring Israel to make unwise and dangerous concessions.
Write letters to the White House and the State Department to criticize the administration’s heavy-handedness and call for the administration to show true solidarity with Israel.
Contact members of Congress and urge them to take actions that counter the administration’s growing hostility to Israel.
Call into radio and TV talk shows in support of Israel and keeping Jerusalem united.
Take a delegation of conservative leaders and grassroots activists to Israel, meet with senior officials there, and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.
Ever since President Obama and his team took office, they have embarked on policies and made statements that have made Israelis feel isolated and endangered. A Jerusalem Post poll found that only 4 percent of Israelis believe President Obama is on their side, compared to 88 percent of Israelis who believed President Bush was on their side. This is not how a superpower should treat its most faithful ally in a dangerous region.
Given rising and serious threats against Israel from Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah, is this really the time for the White House and State Department to be throwing a temper tantrum over Israel’s right to build houses in its capital?
– Joel C. Rosenberg is the New York Times–best-selling author of seven novels and non-fiction books about Israel, including Epicenter and Inside the Revolution. Full disclosure: He served as an aide to Mr. Netanyahu in 2000.