Israel Apartheid Week hadn’t yet run its course when Israel came in for a barrage of hostile characterizations also from the Obama administration. In the same brief time span there was also Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad—“The Zionist regime is the most hated regime in the world…. with Allah’s help, this regime will be annihilated.” All this came hard on the heels of a wave of international outrage, and violent attacks by Palestinians, over Israel adding shrines in Hebron and Bethlehem to a list of national heritage sites.
If it seems like a lot of negative attention for one small, constantly pressured country, it is. Reacting to an announcement by the Israeli Interior Ministry on plans to build 1600 housing units—for Jews (if they had been for Arabs, no one would have protested)—in Jerusalem, Vice-President Joe Biden, who was in Israel for a visit, reportedly told Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, “This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
Netanyahu apologized and, by Thursday last week when Biden’s visit ended, apparently thought the matter had been handled. But on Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu and gave him a 45-minute harangue in which she told him, as State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley put it, that “the United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” that “this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process and in America’s interests,” and that “she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security.”
Further harsh remarks came from Obama adviser David Axelrod, who called the announcement about the residential units for Jews an “affront” and an “insult” and said it “seemed calculated to undermine” indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks—this after Biden had accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that the announcement was bureaucratic happenstance. And Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren received “the same message of American disapproval and outrage” from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg—it being clear by now that the anger was being “managed” from the top, that is, by President Obama himself.
The totally unwarranted nature of this anger was well summarized in a Wall Street Journal editorial, which noted that “this particular housing project… falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and can only be described as a ‘settlement’ in the maximalist terms defined by the Palestinians.” Indeed, when in November Netanyahu announced a ten-month construction freeze in the West Bank that did not include any part of Jerusalem, Clinton praised the move as “unprecedented.” As the Journal concluded: “this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.”
Still, whatever slights and betrayals those countries have suffered, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman was more on the mark when he stated, “We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States.” The United States could, for instance, well blame other NATO countries for sending only tiny, token forces to Afghanistan; or Germany for its ongoing thriving commerce with Iran. Yet such a public dressing-down of these allies as Israel gets for apartments in Jerusalem would be, of course, inconceivable.
What motivated the administration’s outburst? Speculations have focused on attempts to intimidate Israel out of attacking Iran; or to force Netanyahu to choose between his right-wing coalition partners and going along with the administration’s notion of a “peace process”—or even pressuring his government into a collapse. Neither aim would be logical: making Israel feel isolated and abandoned by the U.S. would increase the chances of a move against Iran; and the right to build in Jerusalem is not a “right-wing” but, rather, a consensus position in Israel that has a unifying rather than fragmenting effect.
Since the anti-Israeli rancor stems from Obama himself, speculation could also focus on his personal motives: an ongoing identification with Palestinian positions; poor personal chemistry with Netanyahu and an inclination to blame him; or, on a less personal basis, animosity toward Netanyahu as an Israeli leader who is perceived as “hard-line” and obstructing peace no matter how many concessions he makes; adherence to a mistaken belief that Middle East-wide instability stems from Israeli-Palestinian tensions; all or some of the above mixed with frustration at the difficulty of the “peace process” that Obama adopted so resolutely as a goal at the start of his term; or he could be motivated by whatever it is that makes the Jewish state the target of so much special malice and denigration.
Whatever stands behind this crisis, which Ambassador Oren has called “the worst with the U.S. in 35 years,” Netanyahu appears to be reacting at this point by holding his ground, having stated on Monday that “Construction in Jerusalem will continue in any part of the city as it has during the last 42 years…. In [that period], there was no [Israeli] government that limited construction in any Jerusalem area or neighborhood. Establishing Jewish neighborhoods did not hurt Jerusalem’s Arab residents and was not at their expense.”
Although Biden, in his speech in Tel Aviv on Thursday, spoke of “an ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” for this administration that does not include refraining from further vilifying Israel at a time of obsessive worldwide opprobrium and existential danger. As Washington pushes Israel to the brink of losing its autonomy as a state, Netanyahu knows there is a limit, a point at which Israel will have to stand up for itself and look out for itself.