A few pointers for the Obama administration on the diplomatic crisis with Israel:
1. I don't support Netanyahu. I think his policies on settlements and building in east Jerusalem are wrong. I think he is stalling for time and I would genuinely like to see a comprehensive political settlement with the Palestinians. But America's response to the government's approval of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo in northeast Jerusalem is excessive.
While it extends a hand to Iran, which continues in its effort to acquire a nuclear bomb; and reaches out to Syria as it arms Hezbollah with advanced weapons, it seems the Obama administration has made a conscious decision to aggravate a diplomatic crisis with the Netanyahu government.
True, Netanyahu may - unintentionally - have caused the crisis, which damaged U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. But now Obama's aides are refusing to relax their grip, hoping to force Israel into declaring a total freeze on building in east Jerusalem.
Washington ought to remember one thing, however: The majority of Israelis wholly oppose halting construction in east Jerusalem. They may be angry over the timing of the announcement - but most want building to continue.
So I am not at all sure that America's opposition to a democratic decision by Israel's citizens will damage Netanyahu's standing at home. In the final analysis, it will only push him further into the rightwing camp, by far the country's most powerful political force. The left and center would in any case never vote for him and the latest episode can only strengthen his image in the eyes of the right.
2. As far as anyone can tell, Netanyahu was unaware of the Regional Planning Council's decision to approve the 1,600 new homes, as was Eli Yishai, the interior minister. Local councils don't usually apprise ministers - let alone the prime minister - of their decisions. President Obama would hardly be expected to approve personally plans for a new neighborhood in Washington, D.C. - or even an expansion of U.S. military quarters in Iraq.
With this in mind, Washington conspiracy theorists' claims of an Israeli ruse are misplaced - although the decision did make a hero of Yishai to the Haredi community, which now sees him as some sort of national champion, ready to face down the world's great powers in the name of resolving their accommodation problems.
3. It is fair to assume that the Obama administration made a calculated decision to attack Netanyahu, based partly on the presumption of support from the Israeli public. It would indeed be easy for an outsider to interpret recent reports in Yedioth Ahronot and Maariv as signs of a consensus in Israel and the Israeli media that Netanyahu should resign.
But here again there is a misperception. The strident headlines are not politically motivated but part of a battle editors are waging against the rival Israel Today, known as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu. Yedioth saw now problem in backing Netanyahu's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who did not freeze building in a single West Bank settlement, let alone in east Jerusalem.
More important, however, is that whatever Israeli journalists might say to undermine the position of their prime minister does not necessarily give foreign officials the right to say the same - even if they do represent the president of the United States. It smacks of intervention.
4. Attempts to imply that Israeli policy is endangering the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and even Iraq, verge on an insult to the intelligence - U.S. citizens particualrly. Afghans don't care about Ramat Shlomo, or about the Palestinians and Netanyahu. They have problems of their own to deal with. As far as extremist Islamists are concerned, the seven-year presence of American forces on Iraqi soil is a good enough excuse to attack Americans.
Efforts by Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, to imply otherwise in television interviews are dishonest. The only people who to suffer from Israeli policy decisions are the Palestinians and neighboring states that have peace agreements with Israel - Jordan and Egypt. Not a single U.S. soldier in Afghanistan is at risk because of 1,600 housing units in Jerusalem.
5. But perhaps what is most important is this: Palestinians see the Obama administration's decision to attack Israel as an invitation to adopt a more confrontational line. A previous settlement slowdown led Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to exploit the opportunity and make any new negotiations conditional on a total freeze in construction, including in east Jerusalem.
Now signals from Washington have led his political faction, Fatah, to start picking its own fight. A few days ago Prime Minister Salam Fayad called on Palestinians to rally to the Temple Mount to "defend Al-Aqsa" after Israel announced the dedication of a synagogue "next door to the Al-Aqsa mosque". Even the most secular of Palestinian politicians, PLO executive committee chairman Yasser Abed Rabo, joined in the condemnations and warned of an escalation.
The need to defend Al-Aqsa is more than a little exaggerated. The synagogue in question is not on the doorstep of the mosque. It is in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City on a site it has occupied for more than 300 years.
But the PA has smelled blood. It understands that the international community will not concern itself with secondary details, such as the fact that the synagogue in question has would no doubt remain in Israeli territory under even the most generous future peace agreement. So why not start a riot and blame the Israelis, especially when the U.S. government is doing the same.
6. In other words, it is time to tone down the rhetoric. It plays into the hands of Netanyahu and encourages violence. American criticism is only helping him in his bid for re-election and bolstering his coalition. Nothing less.
7. And as for you, Netanyahu? Do us all a favor and cancel the building in Ramat Shlomo.
Posted by Avi Issacharoff on March 16, 2010
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