The humiliating treatment accorded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to the White House and the 13-point diktat he received from President Barack Obama has brought relations between the United States and Israel to a point of crisis. But however this particular dispute between the two countries plays out, observers must ponder what will follow during the rest of the Obama presidency.
Though Obama’s foreign policy seems fixated with making nice with rivals and enemies, it has also been accompanied by what appears to be a calculated decision to create some distance between America and Israel. Indeed, just 15 months into the Obama presidency, the U.S.-Israel relationship seems to be as fractious as it has been in recent memory. In his first months, Obama tried and failed to topple Netanyahu’s newly elected coalition by issuing a demand for a settlement freeze. In an attempt to smooth things over with his country’s only ally, Netanyahu formally accepted the principle of a two-state solution and agreed to stop building in the West Bank, though not in Jerusalem.
But when an ill-timed announcement of a housing project in eastern Jerusalem coincided with the visit to Israel of Vice President Joe Biden last month, Obama pounced again. The incident was portrayed as a full-blown insult to America that required the stiffest condemnation. Indeed, the plan to build apartments for Jews in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem was greeted by a more spirited American denunciation than Obama had mustered for Iran’s stolen election or the brutal repression of protestors in the streets of Tehran.
This is hardly the first dispute between the two countries. Every administration since 1967 has proposed peace plans and negotiating strategies that Israel disliked or actively resisted. Genuine friends such as Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush as well as less friendly presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush all pushed hard at times for Israeli acceptance of unpalatable concessions.
But in spite these precedents, Obama has managed to go where no American president has gone before. For all of his predecessors’ objections to settlements in the West Bank, no previous American leader has ever chosen to draw a line in the sand about the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. It is true that the United States never recognized Israel’s annexation of the eastern sector of the city after Jerusalem’s unification in 1967. In fact, it has never even recognized western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But the new Jewish neighborhoods that sprang up along the northern, eastern, and southern outskirts of the city as well as those in the Old City were never a source of contention even during the presidencies of Carter or the elder Bush. It has come as a complete surprise to most Israelis, let alone American supporters of Israel, that places such as Ramat Eshkol, Pisgat Zeev, Gilo, or even Ramat Shlomo (the site of the “insult” to Biden) are considered “settlements” by the United States and thus no different from the most remote hilltop outpost deep in the West Bank.
During the course of his first go at Netanyahu, Obama made it clear that, contrary to a promise given by George W. Bush in 2004, he considers the bulk of settlements situated close to the 1967 border — which Israelis believe they will keep even in the event of a peace deal — to be just as illegitimate as more controversial communities. In the hope of defusing the argument, Netanyahu reluctantly agreed to a freeze in these towns and villages while still maintaining that Jerusalem could not be treated in the same way. But Washington’s demand that the freeze be extended to eastern Jerusalem signals that Obama clearly believes that, like the big settlements of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim, the homes of the approximately 200,000 Jews who live in eastern Jerusalem are also on the table.
It is far from clear what Obama thinks he can achieve with these demands. Despite Netanyahu’s concessions on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is still refusing to negotiate directly with Israel. Indeed, the so-called “proximity talks” that Obama was in such a lather to revive with further Israeli concessions showed little promise. The circumstances that have always prevented the Palestinian Authority from signing any agreement that legitimized a Jewish state within any borders have not changed. Even more to the point, since Obama has followed every Israeli concession with demands for more, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate? His failure to do so is inevitably rewarded with more pressure on Israel.
But despite that fact that his diplomatic offensive has virtually no chance of success, Obama has still done something that will permanently alter Middle Eastern diplomacy. By treating the Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem as a vast illegal settlement, the continued growth of which is an alleged impediment to peace, Obama has made it impossible for any Arab leader to ever accept Israel’s possession of this part of the city. This not only makes the already near-impossible task of forging peace that much harder, it is a crushing blow to decades of Israeli and American-Jewish efforts to foster international recognition of a unified Jerusalem.