The Left Went to the Beach

A huge omission lies in the American demand that Israel freeze construction in the settlements. President Barack Obama and his aides failed to stir an internal Israeli debate on the settlements and did not pose a political or public challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding his insistence that "natural growth" be allowed beyond the Green Line.

A Haaretz-Dialog poll published last Friday shows that the public is divided over what is best: construction in the territories or friendship with Obama. Nonetheless, no political force in Israel stood up to Netanyahu and called on him to "say yes to Obama - freeze the settlements." Not Tzipi Livni and Kadima, who missed an opportunity to challenge the prime minister because of the rift with the United States. Not Yuli Tamir and the other Labor rebels, who could have depicted Defense Minister Ehud Barak as a collaborator with the settlers. Even Meretz, which is trying to rehabilitate itself, did not take up the flag of struggle that Obama put out there.

During deliberations in the Knesset a week ago, some opposition MKs attacked Netanyahu for ruining our ties with the United States. But none of them, not even the Arab MKs, called on him to accept Obama's demand.

The left's silence is amazing if we recall the previous crisis in relations with the United States, during the era of George H.W. Bush. At that time Laborites demanded that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir "say yes to [secretary of state James] Baker," and when he refused, they disbanded the unity government. Two years later the left supported America when it conditioned loan guarantees to Israel on freezing settlements. This time, nothing. It's as if the left is saying: Let Obama and Bibi fight it out - we're going to the beach. It's summertime.

What happened? First, Obama did not try to communicate with the Israeli public and convince them that freezing settlements will be an important and positive step to contribute to peace and a better future. Obama addressed the Arabs and Muslims, but not the Israelis. His neglect increased concerns among Israelis that they do not have a friend in the White House.

When the president is "Hussein," he is perceived as being pro-Arab and picking on Netanyahu. The administration's pathetic attempt to deny the existence of understandings with Israel on construction in the settlements only bolstered this impression. It was possible to blame Israel for violating its promises, or to say that the policy had changed and to explain why, but not to lie.

Second, most Israelis do not visit the settlements and do not know where they are and what has been built there. Those familiar with the details know that the construction is concentrated at Ma'aleh Adumim, Betar Ilit, Modi'in Ilit, and Givat Ze'ev - in other words, in the "settlement blocs." They also know that these projects are mostly for the ultra-Orthodox, so it's a sociopolitical solution and not an "obstacle to peace." Secular Israelis find it quite convenient that the Haredim live where they cannot be seen.

Third, Rahm Emanuel, Obama's Israel strategist, adjusted the administration's policy to the situation in Congress in an effort to twist the Jewish lobby's arm. He knew there are no major supporters on the hill for "natural growth" in the settlements, and that it would be easy to pressure Netanyahu with the demand for a freeze, which would leave the prime minister without allies in Washington. But Emanuel ignored the Israeli political scene, and it appears that the administration lacks "eyes and ears" in Jerusalem. The recent appointment of Dennis Ross at the White House will put an expert on Israeli politics near Obama. Will he listen to his advice?

Fourth, Obama gained nothing from the Palestinians or the Arab states, and his insistence on the settlement freeze only encouraged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in his refusal to negotiate with Netanyahu. Under these circumstances, it is hard for the Israeli left to blame the government for ruining the chances for peace.

Fifth, the more time passes, the more it appears that the demand for a freeze on settlement construction was meant to represent a distancing from Israel, as a way for the United States to improve relations with the Arab world. Obama squeezed out of Netanyahu support for a two-state solution, and could have made do with that as the basis for a diplomatic process.

But he converted the freezing of settlements into a matter of honor, and every American concession, even over a building frame, will be interpreted as the president giving in. When the argument is about who is stronger, not an issue's substance, whoever calls on Netanyahu to give in to Obama will be accused of not being a patriot. And the Israeli left does not want to find itself in that situation.