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Sunday, March 14, 2010

A smart and necessary move?

Jeffrey Goldberg is living in the wrong decade (Hat Tip: Andrew Sullivan).
Hillary has picked a smart fight, which is to say, a fight that is not about Iran, a subject on which Israelis are unified, but a fight about East Jerusalem housing growth, a subject on which the majority of Israelis are ambivalent, or worse.

It has been a truism that no Israeli prime minister can survive long in the job after having angered America; Bibi had been proving this truism wrong, because Israelis are more frightened of Iran's nuclear program than they are of alienating the Obama Administration. But the majority of Israelis see settlements as a possible impediment to peace (to the degree that they even believe peace is possible), and they certainly don't see a settlement freeze as an existential threat to their country. So Hillary has picked the right fight, and the Obama Administration has picked the right person to pick the fight: A former senator from New York who is married to one of Israel's favorite ex-presidents.
Bzzzzt. Wrong, Jeffrey. She's actually picked a fight she has no chance of winning unless the Obama administration is going to force Israel to do what it wants - which is not a great idea seven months before a midterm election in which the Democrats look like hogs about to be slaughtered. Why is this is a bad move? Let me count the ways:

1. The majority of Israeli Jews are not ambivalent about housing growth or any other growth in 'east' Jerusalem. Far from it. That statement may be correct about the growth of Jewish cities and towns across the 'green line' outside Jerusalem, but there is virtually wall-to-wall support among Israel's Jews for keeping Jerusalem unified under Israeli control. If this were not the case, you wouldn't be seeing the exercises of Jewish sovereignty that are taking place in areas like Shimon HaTzadik/Sheikh Jarrah, the Mount of Olives and the City of David/Silwan. None of these moves has aroused any opposition in the Knesset. In fact, Netanyahu scored points among the Israeli public for standing up to Obama on 'east' Jerusalem.

2. Israelis generally accepted the 'settlement freeze' because (a) it didn't apply to Jerusalem, (b) they didn't want to tick off the Obama administration any more than necessary. However, surveys that were done in Israel at the time showed that most Israelis favored allowing 'natural growth' to continue, and there was almost no opposition that said let's freeze construction that's already in progress. That's why, despite the 'freeze,' construction is continuing almost unabated.

3. Most Israeli Jews no longer believe that peace is possible with the 'Palestinians,' at least for the foreseeable future. We saw what happened to Ehud Barak in 2000 and in 2001. We saw what we got for expelling 10,000 Jews from their homes in 2005. We now know what Abu Mazen turned down at the end of 2008. Almost no one wants Netanyahu to offer the 'Palestinians' more than was offered by Barak and Olmert. And even if it was offered, almost no one believes it would be accepted or that if it were accepted that it would lead to peace. Even forgetting for a moment that Abu Mazen is incapable of delivering even if he wants to deliver (which he does not). Have you looked at how many seats the Jewish Left won in the last election? Leave Kadima out of it, because Livni would offer more than Netanyahu and far less than Barak or Olmert offered. The Jewish Left won 15 seats out of 120 in the last election. Meretz, the only true Jewish Leftist party, won 3 seats (the rest went to Labor which is in the government). All of this suggests that Israelis are fed up with the 'peace process' and with 16 years of giving and giving and getting nothing in return.

4. No one is going to mix up Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was a popular President here - you're right on that - but Obama is the most unpopular President ever. No President of the United States has ever alienated Israelis more totally than Obama. Not even George H.W. Bush.

And no one is going to confuse Hillary with Bill either. This is Israel's enduring image of Hillary Clinton - it's not one that engenders trust or good faith:

Can Hillary Clinton shove a 'peace deal' with the 'Palestinians' down Israel's throat? No. Was this a smart fight for her to pick? No. As Aaron David Miller pointed out:
Obama has no Middle East policy without the Israelis. As frustrated as the president and vice president may be with Israel, any chance Washington has of moving negotiations forward requires Israeli cooperation. And the administration does not want to lose its influence with Israel when it comes to Iran — particularly now, with sanctions in the works.

But most important, for this very busy president, the Arab-Israeli issue now has little to do with his stock at home. Frankly, it isn’t even the most important priority in the region.

Obama is presiding over two costly and unpopular wars and a jobless recovery and is on the verge of the endgame on health care. He doesn’t need additional diversions and distractions.

Moreover, Obama now knows the settlements issue is a dog’s lunch. He can’t win — particularly when it involves Jerusalem.
So while Clinton undoubtedly picked this fight with Obama's consent and encouragement (it was widely reported that they planned Clinton's call to Netanyahu together), it wasn't a wise fight to pick, and it certainly wasn't a 'smart and necessary move.' It's only going to escalate the shouting match until someone backs down. I wouldn't bet on it being Netanyahu. The lesson he learned from 1999 wasn't that he has to maintain good relations with America: It's that he has to keep his coalition together.


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