How to interpret events in Israel over the past week? There are the facts, the spin, and the analyses.
First, here are the facts as I understand them. The Obama administration wants to get the Middle East talks back in motion. The point person for this task is George Mitchell, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
Last year, the administration unsuccessfully put pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cease new settlement construction. The Palestinians and the Arab League wanted a construction freeze as a condition for direct negotiations with Israel. In November, Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on settlement construction. The United States and the Palestinians said this fell short of a full freeze, but Mitchell nonetheless welcomed it.
Since there was reluctance for face-to-face meetings on the part of the Palestinians, Mitchell arranged for “proximity” talks, with Mitchell acting as a middle man.
Meanwhile, the Netanyahu government has been at odds with the Obama administration over how to approach the impending nuclearization of Iran.
While making a widely touted speech in Cairo designed to establish better relations between America and the Muslim world, Barack Obama, as president, has not visited Israel, America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, on the eve of the proximity talks, Obama dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to talk to Israel about outstanding issues between the two countries and to assure Israel of the support of his administration.
In Israel, Biden declared his love for and U.S. support of Israel.
Within hours, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a leader of the right-wing Shas Party, announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in east Jerusalem. This led to a strong condemnation by Biden in what a New York Times editorial called “rare and decidedly undiplomatic language.”
In response, while Netanyahu said that bureaucrats should not affect policy, he has not withdrawn the housing plans for east Jerusalem.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a “tense, 43-minute phone call,” according to the NY Times, approved by Obama, told Netanyahu that the plan for new housing units sent a “deeply negative signal” about Israeli-American relations. The Washington Post reported that Clinton appeared to link U.S. military support for Israel to the construction in east Jerusalem.
The Times report added, “The coordinated moves were a remarkable show of displeasure by the Obama administration, which has been rebuffed in its yearlong effort to persuade Israel to freeze construction of settlements as a first step toward reviving the long-stalled peace talks.”
Those are the key facts. Now, what do they mean?
While Obama has been flying all over the world, he has not deemed Israel worthy of a personal visit. The renewal of peace talks would have been an ideal time to go.
If Middle East peace efforts are at a critical juncture, why did Obama send Biden to deliver the administration’s message instead of delivering it personally? Perhaps Obama did not go to avoid inflaming the Arabs after his Cairo speech of Muslim reconciliation.
Another possibility is that, having not gotten concessions from Netanyahu through Mitchell and Clinton, Obama sent Biden as his proxy. Biden was a wolf in lamb’s clothing, a supposed friend who was to deliver Obama’s message of toe the line or else.
Also, a known negotiating tactic has the person who does not have the final say sent into the negotiations, thus allowing the repudiation of a tentative deal if, on further reflection, it seems a bad one.
Presidents Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush realized this when arranging agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. By their presence in the negotiations, the Israelis and Palestinians knew they were dealing with the final authority in the United States.
What was the message to be delivered by Biden? Most Israelis believe that a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel. Israel has made it known that it would consider unilateral military action if necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In recent months, a modus vivendi has seemed to develop between the United States and Israel: The Obama administration would keep quiet about Israeli settlement plans while Netanyahu would support strong sanctions against Iran.
The Washington Times’ Wesley Pruden believes that the real purpose of the Biden mission was to “harshly” warn Netanyahu “to be nice about the West doing nothing about Iran.” Why? “Because Mr. Obama and his administration can’t do anything to punish an enemy, they’ll try to punish a friend by extracting a promise from Israel to learn to live with the neighborhood nuclear outlaw.”
In the same vein, DEBKAfile, a security and intelligence news service, reports that “Netanyahu may well have approved the Jerusalem announcement as an indirect comeback for the way the American visitor laid down the law on a number of issues of Israeli concern, chiefly the matter of Iran’s rapid progress toward a nuclear weapon.”
It is obvious that Obama and Netanyahu do not see eye-to-eye on many significant issues. Despite the ritualistic incantation of the Obama administration about a “special relationship” with Israel, the issue is whether one still exists.
As the Washington Post noted, “Some analysts applauded the administration’s tough stance, saying it may jar the right-leaning Israeli government into making gestures to the Palestinians. But others said Clinton’s call risked emboldening Arab and Palestinian officials to make new demands before talks start, if only so as not to seem softer than the Americans.”
With the Obama administration leading the charge against Israel, why should the Palestinians do anything but balk and demand?