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.
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.
Disagreements are common, but generally they have not been made as bitingly public. Nothing positive comes out of public negotiations or public controversy. If issues are to be resolved, it will happen only through private channels and private dialogue. What can be retrieved? Above all, it is unwise to elevate Jerusalem as an issue in the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis because the question of Jerusalem is so emotional for both parties. Each of them would find it impossible to find a compromise if attempts occurred in public and without an agreement on the other issues. The status of Jerusalem should be raised only at the very end of a negotiation.
There is an underlying strategic imbalance between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The Palestinians can lose many wars and still survive. The Israelis can lose only one. This must be kept in mind by both the United States and Israel as they strive to work through their differences.