Barack Obama has achieved the impossible. He has managed to bring together secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews in a heated campaign against him. His administration’s determination to use an Israeli housing construction project in Northern Jerusalem as the pretext for a diplomatic crisis, has set him on a collision course not just with Israelis of all stripes but even with American Jews who are growing increasingly apprehensive of just where this President intends to lead them.
Did he anticipate this? No one can know for sure. But his determination to face down Benjamin Netanyahu and force him to cancel the permit for 1600 units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem has already backfired. Coming right at the opening of the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. this weekend, he is about to become the first post- war Democratic President whose name may be greeted with derision by a convocation of Jews.
Almost anyone who lives in Jerusalem knows that the area in dispute, Ramat Shlomo, is a Jewish neighborhood and has been so for thirty years. It is surrounded by other Jewish neighborhoods and no Israeli in their right mind would consider surrendering it in any final peace deal with the Palestinians. Giving up Ramat Shlomo would be the equivalent of giving up the world famous Hebrew University on Mount Scopus, the tony Jerusalem suburb of French Hill and even the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. All three are just as integrated into the Jewish identity of Jerusalem as Ramat Shlomo. Only by accepting the Palestinian narrative – that all of Jerusalem belongs to the Palestinians, could anyone possibly envision the suburb as future Palestinian territory.
The punditocracy is awestruck by the apparent petulance of it all. What, they are all asking, did he hope to gain? Was the intention to dress down Netanyahu and bring him into line? Well, the Israeli prime minister is defiant and there is no sign whatsoever he will accede to the administration’s demands that he cancel the permit. This stance has rallied much of the country behind him. Rather than weakening the Israeli leader, as Obama might have hoped, he has only added to his political capital.
The Palestinians watch in delight as they wait for the Americans to deliver Israeli concessions without having to do anything but chew on their falafel. They win either way. If the peace process continues to stall they can continue to wait, which is their modus operandi anyway. If Obama finally gets Netanyahu to say uncle, they will be dealing with a castrated Israeli leader viewed as unable to control his own foreign policy.
The Arab League, those irredentist potentates, are no doubt rolling around on their palace beds in glee. They had made clear to Obama that there could be no further progress in Middle East peace without resolving the grievous wound to Arab pride caused by the Arab-Israeli dispute. Ramat Shlomo has become their poster child for Israeli transgression and so now they are winning too, convincing an American president to do their bidding.
And what is one to say about the claims by Obama lieutenants such as Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton and David Axelrod, that events in northern Jerusalem put American lives elsewhere at risk? Are we really to believe that al Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan have for years awaited developments in Ramat Shlomo with tense anticipation – so much so that if the crisis is not resolved soon in the Arab favor, there is certain to be an explosion?
Nothing could be further from the truth. There is absolutely no connection between the construction of apartment units in Ramat Shlomo (still two years distant) and the intent of Islamic martyrs to kill American soldiers thousands of miles away. The same number of American servicemen will be targeted and killed in the Middle East no matter what happens in northern Jerusalem.
So what playbook is Barack Obama and his administration reading from in breathing life into a crisis that should never have been? It is, I believe, simply this: Obama sees the world in terms of a rather protean struggle between the weak and the strong, the poor and the rich. The weak in his eyes are almost always innocent purveyors of righteousness and while the powerful personify greed and oppression. The same world view permeates his domestic policies and can be read between the lines of his push for health care reform, his castigation of rich bankers, his penchant for apologizing for American actions abroad and his willingness to risk U.S security for the benefit of the human rights of enemy combatants.
The Palestinians have won his sympathy in spite of their proclivity for deception and their gift of the suicide bomber to the world. In his first year in office, the President has rarely leveled any criticism at Palestinian temporization and yet demonstrated increasing impatience for the fat cat Israelis in Jerusalem and even more for their supporters in Washington. After all, they represent the kind of world for which he has contempt.
Even reserving to himself these feelings, Obama could have spared both countries this latest crisis. There are plenty of ways of applying pressure to an ally without having them feel undermined. But that would have required certain skills of statecraft that this president has yet to develop. Instead, this administration has fanned into a life a blaze it will spend many months trying to extinguish and in the process revealed a political immaturity and flailing inexperience that should worry Barack Obama’s even most ardent supporters.