The administration has turned a public relations snafu into a diplomatic crisis.
There’s a joke making the rounds in my suburban Chicago neighborhood about the clash between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government: Why did Vice-President Joe Biden get angry when Israel embarrassed him by announcing new construction in Jerusalem’s Ramat Shlomo neighborhood? Because it’s usually Biden’s job to embarrass himself.
The joke has carried on far too long. The tension between the two governments is being stoked by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a deliberate attempt to weaken the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If Israel had committed a real foul, the Obama administration could have used a quiet threat of public condemnation to force Israeli concessions, and the Netanyahu government would have little choice but to comply.
Instead, the Obama administration has turned a public relations snafu into a public test of Israeli sovereignty, leaving the Netanyahu government little choice but to resist. The neighborhood where 1600 homes were to be built is not a remote outpost. It is mere meters from the Green Line, in a part of East Jerusalem that is actually west of the Old City. It is likely to remain part of Israel in any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
The timing of the administration’s attack is unfortunate, for two reasons. One is that Iran continues to move towards becoming a nuclear power. Each day the U.S. and Israel spend on the Ramat Shlomo question is a day wasted, a day that ought to have been spent dealing with our common enemy.
The second reason is that thousands of pro-Israel activists will arrive in Washington, D.C., next week for the AIPAC policy conference. The contrived crisis is a provocation, a message to the grassroots representing the pro-Israel majority of Americans that bipartisan support for Israel is over.
Too late, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has tried to undo the damage that her 45-minute tirade against Netanyahu has done. She denied this week that there was any crisis at all. Yet, Israel's ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren--a historian who has chronicled the history of American involvement in the Middle East--has said that "Israel's ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975." (Oren has since denied making that statement, but there can be little doubt that the sentiment is widely held among the Israeli leadership).
Riots broke out across Jerusalem yesterday, orchestrated by Palestinian leaders, who have linked the argument over settlement construction to Israel's reconstruction of a synagogue in the Old City that was destroyed by Jordan after 1948. Their goal is to spark a third intifada by appealing to religious passions among Palestinians and throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. If they succeed, the administration will not only have harmed U.S.-Israel ties, but it will also have sparked a new terrorist war that could threaten American interests.
As the White House escalates its attacks on Israel, the chorus of anti-Israel voices in Washington grows louder. In 2008, only 27 congressmen--almost all Democrats--could be found to vote against Israel’s Gaza offensive, Operation Cast Lead. In 2009, the anti-Israel ranks swelled to 39 in a vote on the Goldstone Report. And this year, 54 congressmen--all Democrats--signed a letter protesting the Israeli “blockade” of Gaza. Obama leads, and they follow.
The White House wants to make pro-Israel Americans decide: either an Israel within the 1949 armistice lines, or no Israel at all. It is a false choice, because the two options yield the same result. A forced retreat to the Green Line--rejected by U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, rejected by every previous U.S. President, and rejected over two decades of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy--is an invitation to Israel’s enemies to press ever further.
It is time that pro-Israel activists turned the tables. We must make our elected officials decide: either continue with the current policy of appeasement, which finds new ways to separate the U.S. from Israel; or a policy of strength, which focuses on the values and interests the countries share. A world that is not safe for Jews and for Israel is not safe for America, either. That is the grim lesson of history and, under the Obama administration, we seem doomed to repeat it.
Joel B. Pollak is the Republican nominee for U.S. Congress in the 9th district of Illinois.