The war of words between the Obama administration and the Israeli government continues to heat up. “This was an affront, it was an insult, but most importantly, it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region,” White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the world on NBC yesterday. Axelrod of course was referring to the decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to move ahead with permission for the construction of 1600 units of housing in East Jerusalem. Continued Axelrod: “For this announcement to come at that time was very, very destructive.”
Axelrod’s comments followed Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s angry 43 minute telephone call to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Saturday, and her call was a follow up to Vice President Biden’s sharp rebuke on his visit.
This is the most sustained reaction of the Obama administration to any action by any foreign government during its first year in office. In an administration which prides itself on a disciplined, unflappable approach to international affairs, the decision to emphasize the depth of its anger was clearly a deliberate step. The emotions are hot, but the decision to make these feelings public and in such a pointed fashion was deliberate and cool.
It was also the right thing to do. This decision by a relatively low-level Israeli body (more like the Chicago zoning commission than the Department of State) may, as Prime Minister Netanyahu and other Israeli officials insist, have taken them by surprise. But the timing could not have been more destructive and insulting if it had been deliberately planned. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman thinks that Vice President Biden should just gotten in his plane and flown home; that was my reaction as well. The Obama administration had no choice but to respond strongly; otherwise the administration would have looked weak and irresolute and the repercussions throughout the world could well have been grave.
The President of the United States cannot afford to look like a patsy; for Israel’s sake as well as for the many others who depend on American support for their security around the world, any American president needs to be seen as a figure who commands respect. Israel’s actions left the Obama administration looking foolish and weak; like it or not, Israel must now do more than say it is sorry. It must help fix the damage it caused.
Things are not, quite, as bad as they look. Approving new housing projects in Jerusalem, as in any municipality, is a long and complex process and there are many decision points along the way. Construction won’t start tomorrow, and this particular decision isn’t the end of the road. There are opportunities for face-saving compromises here — if the Israelis are willing to make them.
The administration wants more. Israeli ineptitude (to put the kindest interpretation on what happened) put the United States in an impossible position; out of sheer self respect the Obama administration will need concrete signs from Israel that demonstrate Israel’s understanding that the president of the United States cannot be treated in this way. For the sake of the bilateral relationship, for the sake of Israel’s own security, this moment needs to be marked. The White House will not be happy with an outcome that Prime Minister Netanyahu can paint as a political success back home.
This latest dispute is the second serious breach between Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government and the Obama administration. The first came last year when Washington demanded a complete halt on all construction in all settlements, including East Jerusalem. This was asking something that the Israeli government could not do — and it was a demand that Washington could not enforce. The Obama administration paid a price for its overreach and its miscalculation, and Israelis were not slow to press their advantage home.
Last week it was the Israelis who stepped over the line, and it is the Israeli side that needs to figure out how to get the relationship back on track. But the Obama administration will need to play its cards carefully; if it pushes too hard it could lose the moral and political upper hand once again. We will see how this works out. Neither country and neither government will benefit from a long, bitter and inconclusive public spat. The administration’s goal should be to get the peace process on track, not to score points.
Unfortunately, the US-Israel relationship isn’t the only important international relationship the Netanyahu government has flubbed. Last January deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon committed one of the most grotesque diplomatic blunders in decades when he summoned the Turkish ambassador into his office and staged a deliberately humiliating and provocative dressing down. Ayalon was soon forced to issue a groveling, humilating apology — but kept his job.
The conventional response to all this, which I share in large part, is to blame the factionalism and extremism of Israeli domestic politics. Proportional representation ensures that even small groups with extremist views can elect enough members to the Knesset that Israeli governments have to do business with them. Religious politics, the settler lobby, immigrant parties and other groups can and do use the fractured parliamentary system to impose their agenda on the country at large. Unsavory and incompetent individuals come to hold great power in Israeli politics, and prime ministers have to indulge them, appoint them to senior posts, and hope and pray that they don’t cause too many train wrecks in Israel’s foreign policy by outrageous decisions and clownish diplomacy.
Israel by rights should be in even worse shape than it is. Even more than the United States, it is a nation of immigrants, as Jews from all over the world sought refuge there. Traumatized European survivors of the Holocaust, hundreds of thousands of penniless refugees forced out of Arab countries after Israeli independence, hundreds of thousands fleeing the wreckage of the Soviet collapse, black Ethiopian Jews, and many others have had to build a new society and a new state under constant threat of terror and conventional war while facing non-stop criticism from all over the world. That Israel would be a flawed and divided society was inevitable; that it would grow into a dynamic and lively democracy with one of the world’s most innovative economies was not.
Israel has a hard row to hoe. Decades of hostility and terrorism have taken their toll on Israel’s political culture and, with the shadow of Iran’s nuclear program lengthening by the day, Israelis live against a background of tension and anxiety that it is hard for others to understand. A diet of bitter criticism from those (like the Europeans) who judge Israel in crisis from their own safe havens does not help. The anger, frustration and bitterness that many Israelis feel sometimes boils to the surface. Yet precisely because their state is exposed to so many threats Israelis must keep their cool.
It is deeply unfair, but Israelis have to be smarter, more flexible and more self-controlled than other people just to survive.
In this latest crisis in the relationship with its most important ally, Israel has already shot itself in the foot and handed a great political victory to those in the administration who would like to see the two countries less closely associated. Israelis need to understand that putting the president of the United States in a humiliating position undercuts the strong support it enjoys in American public opinion.
This is particularly true because Israel’s strongest supporters in the United States today belong to the Jacksonian school of American foreign relations. Jacksonians are honor-focused; they react very negatively to insults against the dignity and honor of the United States. While President Obama is not a Jacksonian favorite, he is the President of the United States, and gratuitous foreign insults to him and his administration do not go over well among the millions of Jacksonian American gentiles who today form the bedrock of Israel’s American support.
The stakes are high. American support for Israel is based on broad public sympathy for Israel; if public opinion shifts against Israel then American policy sooner or later will follow.
The Israeli government groveled to appease Turkey’s justified wrath after Danny Ayalon’s blunder. It doesn’t need to grovel now, but American public opinion, and the Obama administration, need to see real evidence that Israel cares what Americans think.
“We love Israel,” a famous American evangelical leader once told me after a conversation with Netanyahu. “But it’s not a blank check.”
Israel has enough enemies already; it needs to think a little harder about keeping its friends.
[Photo: "Safed Environs, Israel" by Capa, The Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Fund]