No, it wasn’t embarrassment that caused a blowup in U.S.-Israel relations when Vice President Joe Biden came to Jerusalem. Nor was it a weakening of America’s bond with Israel. It wasn’t timing, either — at least not the timing of Israel’s announcement of new housing plans in East Jerusalem moments after the vice president arrived. That provided a trigger, but the confrontation was coming anyway.
A blowup was inevitable because both countries have new administrations. Each had a mandate to reverse its predecessor’s policies on Middle East peace, and in the course of their respective U-turns they collided head-on.
In the opinion of the Obama administration, it’s time to finalize a deal between Israel and the Palestinians along the lines laid out by President Clinton in 2000: Palestinian statehood within the 1967 boundaries, border adjustments for major settlement blocs, Jerusalem as the shared capital of two states.
In the opinion of the Netanyahu government, there’s no rush. The Palestinians don’t have a leadership that’s ready to make a realistic deal. As for sharing Jerusalem, that’s a deal-breaker.
On one point, both sides agree, sort of. Both governments believe they face the same enemy in the form of violent Islamist radicalism. Paradoxically, this is becoming the most contentious point of conflict between them. In Israel’s view, America’s global struggles should drive home the reasons why Israel must stand firm and unflinching. The view from Washington is that Israel’s firm, unflinching stance is making America’s troubles worse.
Israeli-Palestinian peace was a top priority for Barack Obama when he entered the White House in January 2009. Peace was important both for its own sake and as part of a larger determination to ease the tensions plaguing America in the Muslim world since September 2001. More than important, it was urgent. Team Obama feared that demography, Palestinian infighting and settlement expansion were closing the door on a two-state solution. But an initial stab at freezing settlement growth fell short, and crises in Afghanistan and on Capitol Hill pushed the issue to the back burner.
This past January, however, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict apparently bounced back to the top of the Obama agenda. According to an article posted online March 13 by Foreign Policy magazine, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen received an unusual briefing about the conflict in mid-January from senior aides to General David Petraeus, chief of the U.S. Central Command. Aides to Petraeus reportedly showed Mullen a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation describing the general’s “growing worries” (the article’s words) over the conflict’s effect on America’s military posture as it pursues two wars in the Muslim world. In December, the article said, Petraeus had dispatched a team of top officers to tour the region covered by his command and interview its mostly Arab leaders. The team is said to have concluded that America was losing credibility in the Arab world because of its inability to confront Israel over basic disagreements.
Israel, for its part, wasn’t sitting idle as Washington honed its peace plans. Benjamin Netanyahu had entered the prime minister’s office last March committed to rolling back some key assumptions that had taken hold in the past decade about the shape of peace and the future of Jerusalem. There’s been a rush over the past two years to secure Israel’s hold on East Jerusalem by increasing Jewish numbers there; under Netanyahu the rush became a scramble. Jerusalem municipal authorities stepped up their support for religious groups staking claims in the Arab neighborhoods of Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah, among others. The government itself announced major expansions of existing Jewish neighborhoods, in Gilo last November and Ramat Shlomo on March 8, both at moments that couldn’t have been more embarrassing to the Obama administration.
The embarrassment wasn’t the issue, though. It merely highlighted the gap between the two allies. For Israel, it dramatized the message that the Jewish state has a new sheriff, and he has no intention of conceding Israel’s exclusive claim to its ancient capital, regardless of cost. America is a valued friend, but Israel makes its own decisions. For Washington, the incident served to force a simmering dispute into the open.
Yediot Aharonot reported that Biden put the issue squarely to Netanyahu in their private talks after the housing announcement: “This is starting to get dangerous for us,” Biden was quoted as saying. “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
American officials denied that Biden accused Israel of endangering American troops. Instead, one senior administration official told blogger Jeffrey Goldberg, Biden actually said America’s ongoing military operations and its efforts to fight terrorism, build a coalition against Iran’s nuclear program, and assist and cooperate with Israel are all made “easier” by “the extent to which Israel aggressively pursues peace.”
Either way the message is the same: America has gone to great lengths to defend Israel’s security. How far will Israel go to protect America’s security?
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).