After months of humiliating inaction in the Middle East, the Obama administration has finally launched a full scale attack.
It comes in response to an announcement by Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu that Israel is going ahead with plans to build about a thousand housing units in Jerusalem. In Jewish neighborhoods, yet!
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denounced this as a “unilateral step” that would prejudice the outcome of talks on Jerusalem’s future. She called Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem illegal and a danger to the moribund American-sponsored peace process.
Privately, the administration got really tough. A “senior White House official” told Atlantic correspondent Jeffery Goldberg that the Israeli prime minister is “a chickens***,” because he is afraid to make peace according to American specifications. “The only thing he’s interested in in protecting himself from political defeat.” The anonymous official said fearlessly. “[Netanyahu] is not Rabin. He’s not Sharon. He’s certainly no Begin. He’s got no guts.”
This American nostalgia for Menachem Begin made me laugh out loud. Having served as one of his press spokesmen for five years I vividly recall the campaign of personal vilification waged against him by the Carter administration.
We constantly heard reports of senior White House officials calling Begin a terrorist, a fascist, a war monger, a lunatic and a delusional religious fanatic. All off the record, of course.
On the record, Carter insisted that Israel had no right to settle in the West Bank or call Jerusalem its capital. He never tired of warning Israel that he was saying this for its own good. Not listening to the U.S. would be a form of Israeli national suicide.
Such dire warnings have been a feature of American diplomacy since Israel conquered the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.
Every American president since Nixon has pressed Israel to withdraw. Often they called this the key to Middle Eastern peace--a belief still held, against all evidence and common sense—by the present Secretary of State, John Kerry.
At home, Netanyahu’s critics on the left are portraying the current spat as an unprecedented crisis in American-Israeli relations. This is true if you set aside Truman’s arms boycott in 1948, Eisenhower’s mugging of Ben Gurion in 1956, the nasty Nixon-Golda Meir battles over the Rodgers “peace” plan, Gerald Ford’s 1975 threat to “reappraise” U.S.-Israeli relations, Carter’s blandishments or Bush 41’s attempt to pressure Prime Minister Shamir in acquiescence by denying U.S. loan guarantees for the absorption of Soviet immigrants. Disagreements over the implementation of the Oslo Accords led to skirmishing between Israel and the US under Clinton and Bush 43, as well as in the first six years of the Obama administration. Somehow, the relationship survived.
It will survive this one, too.
This week, Netanyahu returned fire by accusing Washington of being “detached from reality.”
Here, I think, is how Bibi sees that reality:
One: Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and no amount of pressure, even from the U.S., will change that. Israel may lop off some Arab neighborhoods as a concession to some future (increasingly improbable) demilitarized Palestinian state, but no Israeli government can relinquish the heart of the city.
Two: It should be obvious that after forty-seven years, Israel is not going to leave the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This is not simply because of stubbornness, fanaticism or politics. It would be a betrayal of national security. It would be crazy for a government facing the rolling tide of Islamic fundamentalism headed west out of Iran and Iraq to surrender real strategic depth for the chimera of “moral high ground.”
Three: Yes, this policy comes with a price. There could be a third Palestinian uprising. The U.N. might censure Israel.
“Progressive” Jews from abroad will be very upset by Israeli insensitivity. There might even be a commercial boycott of some sort. But these things, like the periodic dust-ups with Washington, have happened before and can be dealt with.
None of them have prevented Israel from going, in three generations, from an impoverished and embattled country of 650,000 to an astonishing democratic, economic and military success story with eight million citizens and growing. And the great majority of Israelis understand this.
Four: After the American misreading of the Arab spring, the infamous Obama red-line in Syria, U.S. abandonment of Iraq, the chaos in Libya and the American failure to understand, let along contain, Islamic terrorism, this administration is not seen by Jerusalem as a font of wisdom. Nor is its sniping taken seriously.
Five: At the moment, Barack Obama and his anonymous senior officials may be madder than wet hens. But they are lame ducks who is likely to be lamer after next Tuesday’s election.
There is no reason to give in to U.S. pressure. After all, not even a chicken is scared of a lame duck.