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Settlement Kerfuffle Follows the Script

Building announcement leads to U.S.-Israeli friction

Marc Tracy
November 10, 2010
Prime Minister Netanyahu Monday at the United Nations.(Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Netanyahu Monday at the United Nations.(Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

On Sunday, Vice President Biden traveled to the General Assembly in New Orleans to reassure attendees that America had Israel’s back security-wise. On Monday, Israel provocatively announced significant (though not deal-breaking) new construction in East Jerusalem. Yesterday, the top State Department spokesperson linked the announcement to the peace process, and President Obama himself argued, “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations. I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort.” The whole thing is playing out exactly as it did in March: Biden visit; housing announcement; U.S. pushback. In March, Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted with the defiant declaration: “Jerusalem is not a settlement”; yesterday, Prime Minister Netanyahu retorted with the defiant declaration: … I’ll just let you guess.

The latest to-do, Aaron David Miller told me this morning, “reflects a much-diminished administration that got off on the wrong foot from the beginning.” Prior history as well as the prospects of continued Israeli-Palestinian negotiations give Netanyahu greater leverage, according to the former negotiator. The prime minister “knows that the administration believes the only way this Israeli-Palestinian problem is going to be resolved is negotiations, and so he’s convinced himself that they need him more than he needs them,” Miller said. “I don’t think he’s looking for a confrontation, but he’s willing to stand his ground.” Especially, Miller added, since we are talking about Jerusalem here: “Building in Jerusalem is as natural as breathing.”

To be fair to Obama: The timing of the announcement again seemed calculated to provoke and to assert Netanyahu’s (new?) upper hand; East Jerusalem lies on the far side of the 1967 Green Line; and Israel also just announced the construction of more than 1000 homes in Ariel, an unequivocal West Bank settlement.

But to be fair to Netanyahu: It is nigh impossible to imagine a final deal that does not include some sort of Israeli sovereignty in all of Jerusalem; East Jerusalem was never included in any freeze deal; and even the freeze deal that was reached a year ago has since expired. “Building in Jerusalem was never considered off-limits by either the government of Israel or frankly—with respect to the Obama administration, they basically acquiesed in it,” Miller noted. He also pointed out that the neighborhood the announcement concerns is one that Netanyahu himself made a move on when he was prime minister in the late 1990s.

(Miller opined that the recent Republican surge is the least important factor here, though it does mean that Obama will have enough to worry about over the next two years without also pushing the Israelis on East Jerusalem as well. Certainly this is, as Ben Smith noted, the first post-midterms test of Obama’s stomach for foreign confrontation.)

To put it another way: Neither opposition leader Tzipi Livni, of Kadima, whose GA speech yesterday was fairly well received by the left, nor any other plausible leader of Israel is going to be any more willing to cede Israeli claims to all of Jerusalem.

On top of all that, some others have complained that Obama made his remarks while drumming up support in Indonesia—the world’s largest Muslim country, which does not permit Israelis to enter.

So, where are we now? A crucial thing to watch is Netanyahu’s meeting Thursday in Washington, D.C., with Secretary of State Clinton. Her bona fides as a friend to Israel are pretty much impeccable. But she was the one who, in March, famously upbraided Netanyahu on the phone for 43 to 45 minutes (depending on your source) for that prior settlement announcement. “If it’s a reprise of what happened in March,” explained Miller of the Clinton-Netanyahu get-together, “we’re not prepared to back it up. We just look weak—we look pathetic, frankly, it’s beyond weak.” How she and the administration handles this situation, I think, will be the most telling hint over the direction the circus will travel over the next few months. Miller’s advice? “Save your powder for an effort that could actually advance the negotiations.”

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.