Judging by appearances, relations between Obama’s Washington and Netanyahu’s Jerusalem are getting a mite testy as pressure grows for movement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, or what’s left of it. The administration wants the sides to agree on a formula to allow reopening negotiations. Israel has partially frozen settlement construction, but with some big exceptions and Jerusalem excluded, which isn’t enough for the Palestinians. Washington wants someone to blink and there’s a sense that time is running out.
Of course, appearances can deceive. It could be that someone is trying to make it look like things are getting testy. On the other hand, that basically amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? That is, isn’t creating the appearance of pressure itself a form of pressure? And if that’s case, who is pressuring whom? It seems fairly obvious, until you look up close.
Last Wednesday, January 6, Haaretz reported on a harsh exchange that reputedly took place two weeks earlier in Los Angeles between White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Israel’s Consultown tinsel — er, Tinseltown consul — Yaakov “Yaki” Dayan. Emanuel is said to have told Dayan that the United States is getting “fed up” with the Israelis and their habit of doing the right thing after it’s too late, and that if things didn’t start moving soon, the Obama administration might just back away from the peace process and attend to other things. Dayan dutifully reported the conversation to the Foreign Ministry, and somehow it leaked out to Galei Tzahal-Army Radio, which broke the scoop.
The White House promptly poured cold water on the account, saying Haaretz had distorted the conversation and that Emanuel was merely voicing frustration with the peace process, not with Israel.
Up to here the story has been pretty widely reported. Less noticed amid the to-do was the news that the White House was angered by the leak of what was supposed to be a private conversation — angry enough that on Thursday Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren had to apologize personally to Emanuel.
Reading between the lines, it looked like one of those classic Jerusalem double-fakes, leaking a report that Washington is giving Israel a hard time in order rile up Israel’s friends and put the administration on the spot.
It looked that way for a few hours, that is, until later that evening, when the administration escalated the rhetoric: On Thursday night, special Middle East negotiator George Mitchell appeared on Charlie Rose and issued what sounded like the bluntest threat yet: suspending American loan guarantees that allow Israel to obtain cheap credit on world markets.
Rose: “You sit there and you say to Israel, look, if you don’t do this, what?” Mitchell: “Under American law, the United States can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel.”
Washington promptly issued the usual denial, insisting that the threat wasn’t a threat. (No, it was maybe a chopped liver sandwich? More likely, baloney.)
So what’s going on here? Mitchell’s mentioning of the loan guarantees on national television was probably not intended to be private (though it could be argued that if he really wanted it public he would have gone on Letterman, not public television). So who is gaming whom? Is Netanyahu trying to put the Obama administration on the spot, as it seemed after the L.A. incident? Or are the two threats part of an administration strategy to ratchet up the pressure for movement? You be the judge.
By the way, if you’re wondering what those loan guarantees are about, here’s a bonus historical tidbit:
If those loan guarantees sound familiar, it’s because they figured in another Washington-Jerusalem slapdown over settlements 18 years ago. In September 1991 Israel’s then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir asked for $10 billion in guarantees to finance the resettlement of the massive Soviet immigration then pouring into Israel. The first Bush administration decided to make the resettlement credits conditional on a settlement freeze. On September 12 the Jewish organizations organized a Washington lobbying day to push Congress for the credit. Bush responded in a noon press conference, complaining angrily that he was up against “some powerful political forces.” The resulting confrontation ended with both Bush and Shamir losing their jobs a year later.
The guarantees were finally issued in 1992 with the condition that $1 would be deducted for every dollar Israel spent on settlements. $3 billion remain to be spent today. Like the old Palmach song said, Rabotai, ha-historia hozeret — Folks, history repeats itself.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).