LAST NOVEMBER the government of Israel agreed to a 10-month moratorium on new Jewish housing in the West Bank. The moratorium did not apply to schools, synagogues, and residential units already in the pipeline; nor did it apply to eastern Jerusalem, which is home to around 180,000 Israelis -- more than a third of Jerusalem's Jewish population. Yet even with those caveats it was an unprecedented concession, intended, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, to "encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbors."
At the time, the Obama administration applauded Israel's announcement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailed it as a "move forward." George Mitchell, the president's special envoy to the Middle East, praised it as "a positive development" that "could have substantial impact on the ground" and acknowledged that "it is more than any Israeli government has done before."
So when Israel's Interior Ministry recently announced its interim approval for the construction of 1,600 new apartments in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, it was not reneging on any commitment. If anyone was guilty of bad faith in the diplomatic crisis that ensued, it was the Obama administration, which had explicitly accepted the terms of Netanyahu's building freeze in November, yet was now going back on its word.
Orthodox Jews in the religious Jerusalem neighbourhood of Ramat Shlomo.
For good measure, the State Department spokesman then demanded that Israel demonstrate "through specific actions" its commitment to peace. Forgotten, apparently, was Netanyahu's unprecedented moratorium of last November, to say nothing of the innumerable Israeli goodwill gestures, concessions, prisoner releases, and peace offers to the Palestinians that preceded it -- all of them unrequited.
When President Obama was asked Wednesday evening whether US-Israeli relations are now in a crisis, he flatly answered: "No." But an atmosphere of harsh antagonism seems to be exactly what the administration's tantrum was meant to engender.
If the president's goal was to bring Israel and the Palestinians to the negotiating table and thereby revive the so-called "peace process," he couldn't have chosen a more counterproductive tactic. The Palestinian Authority promptly seized the opportunity to back out of the indirect talks it had agreed to -- why negotiate for Israeli concessions if Washington can force Israel to deliver them on a silver platter? "We want to hear from Mitchell," said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, "that Israel has cancelled the decision to build housing units before we start the negotiations."
This has been the Palestinian Authority's strategy ever since Obama took office tilting against Israel. Last spring, the PA's Mahmoud Abbas told Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post that he had no intention of negotiating with Israel -- he was content to sit back and let Washington twist Netanyahu's arms. "The Americans are the leaders of the world," Abbas told Diehl. "They can use their weight with anyone around the world. . . . I will wait."
Candidate Barack Obama, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in 2008, pledged 'unwavering friendship with Israel.' Skeptics had their doubts.
As a candidate for president in 2008, Barack Obama said that was his position too. Millions of pro-Israel American voters believed him, just as they believed his pledge of "unwavering friendship with Israel." The recent unpleasantness suggests it may be time for second thoughts.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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