In Middle East, Public Diplomacy Is the Wrong Approach

Israel-U.S. misunderstanding underscores the risk.

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Who would have thought that a decision by a community planning board in the third year and at the fourth level of a seven-step process that still has years to go before construction can begin could ignite a firestorm between Israel and the United States?

The action—a stage in the bureaucratic approval of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem—was singularly ill-timed. It coincided, of course, with the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. It was then immediately interpreted worldwide as Israel's defiance of U.S. pressure to stop building. The vice president was upset; he left the prime minister and his wife waiting for an hour and an half for a dinner that had been coordinated in advance.

It's clear now that Netanyahu himself was blindsided by the bureaucracy. He was profuse in his apologies for a "destructive" act and asserted that there was no intention to time the announcement for the vice president's visit. He is to be believed. It was Netanyahu who recently instructed Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to cancel a similar plan to redo the housing in Silwan, another part of Jerusalem but one occupied by Arabs. It would have been suicidal for him to sabotage Vice President Biden, who has long been a good friend of Israel and intended to reiterate the Obama administration's commitment to ensuring that Iran does not gain a nuclear weapons capability. Even Netanyahu's sharpest critics don't believe he would have acted in a manner so contrary to Israel's own perception of its national interests.

After his apology, he and Biden worked out an accommodation as to how the issue should be dealt with to make sure there are no more surprises. Biden thereupon reaffirmed that the U.S. relationship with Israel was "impervious" and would endure "no matter what challenges we face."

That might have laid the ground for a new beginning. After all, the housing contemplated is to be in a section of Jerusalem occupied almost exclusively by the Jewish community, about five blocks from the pre-1967 border. It's in an area where Israel's eventual sovereignty has been taken for granted in round after round of two-state negotiations, including President Clinton's "parameters," in which Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty and Arab neighborhoods would be under Palestinian sovereignty. Every peace negotiation has contemplated the formal inclusion of this area under Israeli control, much as Arab enclaves within Jerusalem have been envisioned remaining under Palestinian control. And the 1,600 units in question are urgently required to house a growing local population that has nowhere to go. An overwhelming number of Israelis support accommodation for the normal growth of the Jewish population in their sacred city.

But hardly had Biden and Netanyahu reached an understanding before the vice president's stance was countermanded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. There was the secretary's demeaning upbraiding of the Israeli ambassador, followed by a series of national TV interviews in which she described the incident as an insult, not just to the vice president but to America. This, in turn, was underscored in national TV appearances by senior White House aide David Axelrod, who called it "an affront." The climax of the over-the-top responses was Clinton's threatening Israel with a change in its security relationship with America. This would be counterproductive to the hopes of a Middle East settlement because, without the measure of security now provided to Israel, it would be even more difficult for the only democracy in the Middle East to do what it has to do to work out a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

The United States had reason to be concerned. Apparently, last November, after what Netanyahu thought was one of his best meetings with President Obama, he was similarly blindsided by an announcement from his own bureaucracy regarding the construction of new units in Gilo, another Jewish part of East Jerusalem. At that time, Netanyahu apparently pledged he would create a mechanism to ensure this would not recur, similar to a system set up by the previous Israeli government to keep track of settlement decisions.