Israel Missteps Grossly

Update: NYTimes reports that Prime Minister Netanyahu Offers Apology, but No Shift in Policy
This blog has mixed no metaphors in saying that the Jewish Settlement Policy on the West Bank and in Jerusalem has been one of the greatest detriments to US Foreign Policy in the important Islamic World. The current map of Israeli settlements on the West Bank not only undermines the view of the US as an evenhanded player in the MidEast and in dealing with Muslim countries/aspirations but also acts as a recruitment poster for both Al Qaeda and The Iranian Revolutionary Guard which dominates the Iran-World Nuclear Confrontation.

Having run the Mideast Special Envoy George Mitchell ragged for the past 9 months as he has tried to reconvene talks between the Israeli and Palestinian political leaders, Israel capped it off this past week with a direct slap to the face to Vice President Joe Biden during his important mission to the country. Despite coming to Israel to affirm the US support, the Israelis, counter to their own promises , announced approval for 1600 new appartments in East Jerusalem – Palestinian territory and intended capital.

The reaction has been strong. In Israel, Haaretz published a direct rebuttal entitled – When Israelis degrade Israel by humiliating Joe Biden. The Atlantic has summarized the response among a broad collection of world observers:

  • Who Knows–It’s a Terrible Idea Uri Dromi for The International Herald-Tribune thinks there’s something worse than the bad diplomacy: “By expanding settlements instead of separating from the Palestinians while we still can, we Israelis are dooming ourselves to lose the Jewish and democratic state that has been won with so much sacrifice.” If settlements make the eventual separation of states impossible, Palestinians will have to be granted Israeli citizenship and voting rights, where their higher birth rate will quickly move them to majority status. Juan Cole agrees at his blog: “The Palestinians cannot be left stateless … forever. If they can’t have Palestinian citizenship, then they’ll have to have Israeli citizenship.”
  • Netanyahu Knew About It Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed he was unaware of the move, which was the decision of a “Jerusalem district planning committee.” The Guardian Simon Tisdall says this is possible, “but the announcement was promulgated by his interior ministry … If Netanyahu did not know, then why not?” At the very least, it’s “hard to credit” interior minister Eli Yishai’s “protestations of innocence.” Foreign Policy’s Blake Hounshell agrees that claim, at least, “doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
  • Old Trick for Political Gain Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post says this is a tried-and-true tactic for the Israeli right, and that Biden should have seen it coming: “The ambushing of high-level American visitors to Jerusalem via the announcement of new settlements is a tried-and-true tactic of Israeli hardliners seeking to derail peace negotiations. It dates back at least to the early 1990s.” Reihan Salam at The Daily Beast argues that “The move will enhance the nationalist ‘street cred’ of its architects.”
  • Contempt The Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan takes the news as evidence that he’s “not imagining these things”; Israel really does have a “‘Go Cheney Yourself’ policy on the peace process,” and a “contemptuous attitude toward the US.”
  • Uncontroversial, Actually “Ramat Shlomo is a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem that already has more than 20,000 residents,” protests Israeli blogger Carl in Jerusalem. “[It] was in no-man’s land before 1967” and “was never supposed to be an issue with the ‘Palestinians.'”
  • Israeli Independence Theater, Political Incompetence, Coincidence Haaretz’s Bradley Burston acknowledges the political profit for the “hard right,” and says the move “mines an emotional vein along a relatively small but potent segment of the Israeli electorate, which holds that to insult Israel’s indispensible ally is to assert the Jewish state’s independence.” It’s about “expung[ing] any trace of … groveling to the colonial master.” That said, Burston is believes the move is stupid and unhelpful.

Chalk it up, if you like, to the powerful pro-settler presence in certain strata of Israel’s bureaucracy. Or credit the mercurial, not to say, erratic, policy style of Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak. Or accept the official explanation that the timing of the decision was coincidence, entirely unconnected with the vice-presidential visit.

In the anarchic swirl of current Israeli governance, the correct answer may well be: all three.

But perhaps the most pointed commentary came from an opinion piece by Tom Friedman in the New York Times who minced no words:

I am a big Joe Biden fan. The vice president is an indefatigable defender of U.S. interests abroad. So it pains me to say that on his recent trip to Israel, when Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s government rubbed his nose in some new housing plans for contested East Jerusalem, the vice president missed a chance to send a powerful public signal: He should have snapped his notebook shut, gotten right back on Air Force Two, flown home and left the following scribbled note behind: “Message from America to the Israeli government: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. And right now, you’re driving drunk. You think you can embarrass your only true ally in the world, to satisfy some domestic political need, with no consequences? You have lost total contact with reality. Call us when you’re serious….This whole fracas also distracts us from the potential of this moment: Only a right-wing prime minister, like Netanyahu, can make a deal over the West Bank; Netanyahu’s actual policies on the ground there have helped Palestinians grow their economy and put in place their own rebuilt security force, which is working with the Israeli Army to prevent terrorism; Palestinian leaders Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad are as genuine and serious about working toward a solution as any Israel can hope to find; Hamas has halted its attacks on Israel from Gaza; with the Sunni Arabs obsessed over the Iran threat, their willingness to work with Israel has never been higher, and the best way to isolate Iran is to take the Palestinian conflict card out of Tehran’s hand.

In sum, there may be a real opportunity here — if Netanyahu chooses to seize it. The Israeli leader needs to make up his mind whether he wants to make history or once again be a footnote to it.

For better of for worse, US-Israel relations will turn on this watershed event as the US in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the battle against Al Qaeda has to weigh how much it can afford the radical intransigence of an Israel which does not want to settle with Palestinians except on the most Pyrrhically disastrous terms. It underlines what I said before – with friends like Israel who needs enemies.

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