The Los Angeles Times says: “a dispute this week between the Obama administration and Israel has ballooned into the biggest U.S.-Israeli clash in 20 years.”
Tom Friedman says: “what the Israelis did played right into a question a lot of people are asking about the Obama team: how tough are these guys? The last thing the president needs, at a time when he is facing down Iran and China — not to mention Congress — is to look like America’s most dependent ally can push him around.”
But then Washington hit back — bam!
This is how Aluf Benn describes Obama’s get-tough approach:
Washington delivered its rebuke to Netanyahu through a number of channels. There was the extended censure by telephone from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a phone call from Biden, the summoning of Israel’s ambassador to Washington to the office of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, the condemnation from the Quartet and, perhaps most important, a media briefing Clinton delivered during a CNN interview which escalated private rebukes into a full-blown public reprimand.
The reproofs were reminiscent of the “low chair diplomacy” the Turkish ambassador to Jerusalem was subjected to by the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the beginning of the year. The media was informed that the conversation between Clinton and Netanyahu lasted 43 minutes, “rather than 10 minutes as usual,” and that the prime minister barely uttered a word.
Obama himself reportedly worded the message to be delivered to Netanyahu during his weekly Thursday meeting with Clinton, lest the argument be made that it was merely the secretary of state scolding the Israeli leader, and not the U.S. president himself.
A State Department spokesman described the conversation using phrases which bring to mind a teacher castigating a student, not a working discussion with the leader of a friendly country and ally.
The substance was no less damning than the form – Clinton spoke of an “insult” to the United States and of “harming bilateral ties.” She could not understand, she said, how such a thing could have been done in light of America’s strong obligation to Israel’s security. U.S. media interpreted these remarks as suggesting that Washington’s military support for Israel is hardly unconditional.
Clinton dismissed Netanyahu’s explanation that the decision to approve the housing plan was made without his knowledge, reminding him that as prime minister he is responsible for his government’s actions.
The statements from the United States were publicized Friday evening – Shabbat – while Israel was officially unable to respond, therefore affording the White House a media exclusive. The instinctive reaction from Netanyahu and his associates was to accuse Washington of a diplomatic ambush, to simply rely on the support of his backers in the United States. Indeed, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, was the first to charge the White House with “humiliating” the Israeli prime minister.
This week presents Netanyahu with a difficult decision. He may choose to visit Washington as planned to speak at the AIPAC conference, which would embarrass the preeminent pro-Israel lobby and put it on a collision course with the Obama administration. Senior U.S. officials will likely decline meetings with him, unless he agrees to at least some of Washington’s conditions. Canceling his flight, however, will be interpreted as acknowledgment of the crisis in U.S.-Israel ties.
High drama! But will it be of any lasting consequence? I really doubt it.
To put this in perspective we should not forget that the initiative the Obama administration is in a desperate effort to salvage — so-called proximity talks — is one that virtually no one had any confidence would accomplish anything in the first place. A successful resolution to the current dispute means getting this initiative back on a track that leads nowhere.
The Jerusalem District Planning and Building committee has canceled two meetings planned for this week. Big deal. It can reschedule them in a few weeks once America and the media are suitably distracted by current events. Indeed, the closer mid-term elections come, the greater this administration’s interests will be in restoring cordial relations with Israel.
Daniel Levy, a former adviser to then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, says the administration is trying to “lay down a marker with [Netanyahu] that they will not allow him to make them look weak,” and no doubt that is true, but this is a marker on a movable line.
Nothing Netanyahu does or refrains from doing will reverse the perception of weakness that was Obama’s own doing when he caved on the issue of imposing a settlement freeze. To insist that this Israeli prime minister avoid doing anything to embarrass the US president merely underlines the extent to which this president is already highly susceptible to appearing weak.
As for whether the Israeli government has any interest in making meaningful gestures of reconciliation with the Palestinians, Ma’an reports on the latest indication: an order from Israeli authorities for the demolition of a mosque in Nablus, right in the heart of the West Bank.