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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Back to the future with Obama and Bibi?

Are we going back to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama munching cookies in the basement of the White House without any media or photographers present? That's what it sounded like after Tuesday's exchanges over Iran and Israeli housing construction in Jerusalem.

Oddly, the Prime Minister is now in the US (where he meets with Secretary of State Clinton on Thursday) and Obama is in Indonesia. But Obama felt at home enough to lash out at Netanyahu on Tuesday.
U.S. President Barack Obama slapped back Israel's declared intentions to build 1,300 new housing units in East Jerusalem, saying "this kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations."

"I'm concerned that we're not seeing each side making the extra effort involved to get a breakthrough," Mr. Obama said after meeting with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on a return trip to a Muslim nation that was once his boyhood home.


"Each of these incremental steps can end up breaking trust," Mr. Obama said, standing next to the Indonesian president.
So is the honeymoon over? Is it back to last March? Jonathan Tobin thinks it is.
Obama chose to use his visit to his former home in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, as the venue for comments directly criticizing Israel for approving the building of 1,000 new housing units in the Har Homa section of Jerusalem. The State Department spokesman had previously criticized the plan, but this is clearly an attempt to escalate the dispute with Israel from a pro forma disagreement — the United States has never recognized the city’s unification in 1967 — into a major battle with the Jewish state.

Back in the spring, Obama had seized upon an innocuous announcement of housing starts in an established Jewish neighborhood in a part of Jerusalem that had been occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 that was issued during a visit to Israel by Vice President Biden, claiming it was an “insult” to the United States. The ensuing argument and attempts at the public humiliation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did nothing to advance the peace process. Even if the Palestinians were to reverse their repeated refusals to make peace and accept a state in the West Bank, Gaza, and a portion of Jerusalem (an offer that Israel has made more than once in the past decade), there is no possibility that those areas where Jewish neighborhoods now exist (and where over 250,000 Jews live) would be turned over to the Palestinians. His dispute with Netanyahu had the effect of forcing the Palestinian Authority to harden its stance on Jerusalem, thus making an accord even more unlikely.

Obama’s stance on Jerusalem was unprecedented in U.S.-Israel relations: although the United States had never recognized Israel’s annexation of the eastern part of the city in 1967, it had also never treated the building of Jewish neighborhoods there as a point of dispute between the two countries in this manner. However, Obama soon understood that not only had he not undermined Netanyahu (whose defense of Jewish rights was popular among Israelis), but he was also alienating part of his own political base: American Jews. While some in the administration had initially listened to the siren song of J Street, which falsely claimed that most American Jews would applaud a policy of pressure on Israel, it soon became clear that Obama’s stance was hurting the Democratic Party. The result of this realization was a furious effort to charm American Jews and supporters of Israel. The attacks on Netanyahu ceased, and the administration was soon issuing statements that noted the obvious about the stalled talks: the Palestinians were the ones who weren’t serious about peace.

But now that the election is over, Obama is back to his old tricks, seizing upon an announcement that can have no impact on any theoretical peace deal in order to pander to a Muslim world that seeks Israel’s destruction. By making a statement about Jerusalem while in Indonesia, Obama is signaling that the United States regards Jewish Jerusalem as being no different from the most remote settlement in the West Bank: an illegal outpost that must be destroyed and its inhabitants removed. Such a statement helps fuel the Arab irredentism that has been the primary obstacle to peace since Israel’s birth in 1948.

Obama’s pandering to the Muslim world is also a signal to Jewish Democrats that their party’s leader is once again throwing Israel under the bus in pursuit of popularity in the Third World. While the majority of Jews stayed loyal to the Democrats this fall even in the midst of a Republican wave, the president’s speedy post-election reversion to Israel-bashing should remind them that this administration is still bent on distancing itself from the Jewish state.
But Ron Kampeas and Jim Besser both think that Obama is trying to de-escalate, and that it's Bibi who's stoking the fires. Here's Kampeas:
As I noted in this brief, Obama seems trying hard to deescalate -- wagging his finger at both the Israelis and the Palestinians, and saying the building is "unhelpful," several stops -- actually, a lot of stops short of -- an "affront", per his aides comments last March, during the whole Biden mess.
I don't believe Obama is trying to de-escalate. I think he realizes that blowing things up from halfway around the World with a a Republican controlled House right after the Democrats took a 'shellacking' is not going to be helpful for his own re-election prospects.

Here's Besser:
Netanyahu, this (dovish) pro-Israel veteran said, made the clearest statement yet that building in East Jerusalem is none of Washington's business, saying "Israel does not see any connection between the peace process and the policy of planning and construction in Jerusalem.”

That was “a real snub” that cut to the heart of American demands that Israel and the Palestinians take steps to improve the climate for their stalled negotiations.

And Netanyahu didn't try to pass it off as a strictly local decision made without his government's involvement, this observer told me.
Well, he couldn't pass it off as a local decision because at the administration's insistence, since last March, Bibi has been directly responsible for all housing decisions in Jerusalem. And since Netanyahu has NO intention (or so he wants us to believe anyway) of imposing a freeze in Jerusalem, what do you expect him to say? He's tired of every apartment being built in Jerusalem becoming a Federal case.
Doing due diligence, I consulted with another prominent activist on the other side of the political divide who told me the real source of administration ire was Netanyahu's promise last March not to surprise the administration with such developments – a promise officials here now feel was broken.

And administration. officials may be “more annoyed because they thought they were saying something pareve and Bibi escalated with his reply.”
So next time Bibi will tell them as soon as he finds out (if he didn't do that this time). But isn't this ridiculous? The Prime Minister of a sovereign country has to inform the President of another country every time a building permit for an apartment is issued in the former's capital city.

I'm with Tobin. I think we're headed back to last March, but we're not there yet because Obama still thinks he has a shot at being re-elected. And I said all along that this would happen and that it was just a question of when. Things are likely to get worse.

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