March 16, 2010
It’s not about settlements, stupid, it’s about trust
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Interior Minister Eli Yishai did more to harm U.S.-Israel relations than all of Israel’s detractors around the world ever could when they decided it is more important to build 1,600 houses in East Jerusalem than to have good relations with one house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It’s hard to believe the timing of the announcement out of a ministry run by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at the start of Vice President Joe Biden’s make-love-to-Israel visit authorizing construction in the fervently religious Ramat Shlomo neighborhood was simply an “innocent” matter of poor timing, as Netanyahu and Yishai would have us think.
By the way, if you say Ramat Shlomo is in East Jerusalem and thus not covered by Netanyahu’s 10-month moratorium on construction beyond the 1967 border, hold on a minute. Israeli and American media report Netanyahu agreed there would be no construction announcements for East Jerusalem, either, as long as his promise wasn’t made public.
The PM claims he was blindsided on what is obviously a very sensitive matter; if true, that raises a critical question: Who’s in charge? If Yishai is running a rogue operation and he still has his job, then the first Israeli premier with an MBA is a mighty poor manager.
Netanyahu, dismissing the incident as “regrettable” and “innocent,” apologized for the timing of the announcement but not its intent – building more housing for Shas’ constituents. Instead he tried to pin the blame on the Obama administration, reportedly saying the crisis was “orchestrated” by Washington. He ordered a full-court-press to lobby the Congress, the media and Jewish leaders to force the administration to back down.
AIPAC quickly saluted and started generating letters and press releases calling on the administration to “diffuse” the crisis. Not a word about how a good friend like Biden had been humiliated – a word used by both governments. ADL, which initially accused the Netanyahu government of creating the crisis, quickly reversed itself and joined the attack on the administration.
Amb. Michael Oren, a historian who should know better, called this the worst crisis since the 1975 “reassessment” by the Ford administration. He apparently hadn’t heard about the 1990-92 Shamir-Bush I-Baker imbroglio.
Netanyahu’s latest offensive is reminiscent of his efforts in the 1990’s against the Clinton administration’s peace policies, but this time he doesn’t have a Republican-led Congress and Speaker Newt Gingrich running interference.
Biden, an Israel visitor for many years and strong supporter, went to reassure Israelis publicly and privately of the depth and strength of the administration’s support, from the President on down, and to emphasize the shared commitment to keeping Iran from going nuclear. Under Obama, Biden told Israelis, the strategic relationship had been “expanded – not maintained, expanded.”
For many years every administration has urged Israeli and Arab leaders to offer “no surprises,” so when a good friend like Biden arrives and gets smacked in the face this way, it is easy to see why some might feel it was deliberate.
Israeli media have reported over the past year that the PM’s office has been a primary source of anti-Obama leaks. The President hasn’t helped his cause by fumbling his Mideast policy in his first year and not visiting Israel, where he badly needs to personally convince centrist Israelis that he and his administration are reliable, caring friends. That was part of Biden’s mission, and if that’s the way an old friend is treated, Obama is not going to be very anxious to visit.
This dispute is not about settlements. Or even about rogue Shas bureaucrats trying —successfully, it turns out—to derail a nascent peace process. It is about trust—a rapidly dissipating commodity.
That’s an old problem with Netanyahu. He did not enjoy a reservoir of trust going into this crisis, and it’s not just with President Obama but also with a pair of former U.S. senators with staunch pro-Israel records, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. If he manages to alienate them, he’s got major tzoris in managing the bilateral relationship.
He lost his premiership the last time – as did Yitzhak Shamir before him – because Israeli voters lost confidence in his ability to handle relations with what a Jerusalem Post editorial called “the only real friend Israel has in the entire world.” It said his government looks “completely incompetent” and its top priority must be “rebuilding that trust.”
You don’t do that by waging a lobbying campaign attacking the President of the United States. Hopefully he won’t try that when – and if – he comes to Washington for next week’s AIPAC conference,
New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote that if Netanyahu thinks he can “embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences,” he has “lost total contact with reality.”
The only winners in this crisis are the rejectionists. Shas flexed its muscles, the settlers got more tribute, Netanyahu won brownie points with the nationalists and ultra-religious, the Arab League had an I-told-you-so-moment and withdrew its hechsher for the now-suspended talks, the Palestinians might name a park or soccer field for Eli Yishai, and the weak and ineffective Mahmoud Abbas gets to look tough.
And peace, if it every really had a chance, looks even more remote.