In Middle East, Public Diplomacy Is the Wrong Approach

Israel-U.S. misunderstanding underscores the risk.

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Either this mechanism was not set up, or it did not function. In either event, the Israelis still have to bear responsibility for the foul-up and for converting an optimal moment in U.S.-Israel relations into a moment of crisis. The result was that what started as a journey to enhance rapprochement almost ended up in a blowup of the kind that requires a great investment in time and energy to repair.

Had the Israelis managed it better, they would have been able to continue construction with much less controversy in the areas that they and previous Ameri­can administrations had believed would eventually become a part of the Jewish state. The buck must stop somewhere, surely with the senior minister who was in charge of the activities in Jerusalem at the time. After all, he is one of seven ministers who formed the inner political circle of the government. It doesn't matter if he knew or didn't know. Somebody must be held responsible. Netanyahu, whatever his political problems may be, must find an appropriate substitute for that minister.

Quite simply, the Israelis must anticipate what might go wrong during visits of important dignitaries. They must fashion a foolproof way to make sure the cabinet will avoid such high-profile pitfalls.

Having said all of that, there is a serious problem in the harshness of the American response. Why? Because it may cause the Israelis and the Palestinians to drift further apart and get more deeply dug in. The trouble is that the American problem is not just with the timing but with the substance of construction. The Obama administration was barely in power when, in his debut in Cairo, Obama in effect demanded a strict settlement freeze. Yet, for many years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his predecessors have come to the negotiating table with the Israelis while settlement activity continued. Abbas is a leader the Israelis can talk to and with whom they can make a deal. The new American approach was counterproductive. Coming from the president himself, it made it impossible for Abbas to take anything less than a similarly maximalist position. The result was, first, to dramatically diminish the possibility of talks between Israel and the Palestinians; indeed, they have not taken place since. Second, it undermined the fundamental trust between Israel and the United States, very important for America's interests in the Middle East and a matter of life and death for Israel.

How is Israel to interpret the fact that in the Biden affair, the United States spoke more harshly to a longtime ally, Israel, than it did to the government of Iran recently when that oppressive regime reacted to a democratic uprising? Nor does it help that Israel was being held to account while the Palestinians escaped any rebuke for an incitement to terrorism. While the world was lambasting Israel, nobody was saying anything about—or even reporting—what happened in the West Bank. Fatah organized a ceremony renaming a public square near Ramallah in honor of a 19-year-old terrorist named Dalal Mughrabi. "We are all Mughrabi now" was the chant for a coldblooded terrorist who precipitated the hijacking of a bus and the resulting murder of 38 Israelis, 13 of them children as young as 2. The Palestinians were smarter than the Israelis. They put the ceremony off until Thursday, when Biden had just left the area, but it makes no difference. The campaign to delegitimize and defame begins in the schools and is propagated incessantly on the public television controlled by Fatah—and subsidized by European and American money!

The United States and Israel have shared values and security concerns over more than 60 years of close relations. It is no accident that a recent Gallup Poll found that 67 percent of the American public supported Israel and that only 25 percent supported the Palestinians. After all, Israel and the United States cooperate on many levels, especially in mutual efforts to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear technologies, on top of joint intelligence cooperation and military operations. Strengthening this bilateral relationship is a constant necessity and challenge.