Analysis / Will Netanyahu's behavior push Obama into Abbas' arms?
PM knew that the decision to approve the E. Jerusalem building plan would embarrass Washington
The crisis surrounding the expansion of Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood is making waves all the way to China now. U.S. President Barack Obama, an amazing orator in his own right, was able to easily duck a question from a reporter from the conservative Fox network on the Jerusalem issue. But Obama did not want to hide his anger in diplomatic phrasings this time. There are at least three reasons for Obama to take out his anger on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the Gilo affair.
First, the U.S. administration has been working hard over the past few days to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to leave open the possibility of staying in Ramallah. Obama gave Abbas his promise that negotiations on the final-status arrangement are right around the corner, together with a commitment to spare him further embarrassments along the lines of the construction of the Jewish neighborhood in the Shepherd Hotel compound in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah. The decision to approve the Gilo expansion is one more nail in Abbas' political coffin and one more blow to Obama's prestige.
Second, Washington, as opposed to Jerusalem, paid attention to the fact that this is public, and not private, construction in the middle of an existing neighborhood. The 900 new apartments are planned for the edge of the neighborhood, on land belonging to the Israel Lands Administration. They will narrow the expanse of land separating Gilo from the nearby Palestinian village of Walaja. In addition, the Americans, as Netanyahu likes to say about Israelis, are not suckers. They remember that the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, intervened more than once in the construction plans for the capital. They know that if Netanyahu had wanted he could have ordered Interior Minister Eli Yishai to postpone the discussion in the regional planning council. The Americans know that Netanyahu was not born yesterday in Jerusalem. They have no doubt that he knew that the council's decision to approve the plan would cause an uproar in Ramallah and embarrassment in Washington.
Obama's fury was over not only the principle, but also the way Netanyahu handled the crisis. In their recent White House meeting they spoke about how even disagreements should be settled in a gentlemanly fashion. White House officials wanted to believe that Netanyahu had taken to heart the message that he should never again portray the president of the United States as a wimp. The impassioned reaction to U.S. Middle East Envoy George Mitchell's request to postpone the Gilo plan outraged Obama and his staff even more than the act itself. They have enough to do with fending off the Republican ambushes, mainly on Fox, against Obama's hesitation on the war in Afghanistan. U.S. embassies in Arab countries are reporting that Obama's charms are wearing off as it becomes clear that nothing has changed since his June speech in Cairo.
The Obama administration has recently begun discussing how to appease Abbas - for example, by giving him letters spelling out U.S. support for a final-status arrangement based on the 1967 borders and reaffirming Washington's position that Jerusalem is divided into eastern and western parts. Netanyahu's behavior in the Gilo affair could remove any remaining doubt in Obama's mind over signing such letters.