Jeff Robbins

Obama aggravates Israel’s mistake

By Jeff Robbins
March 18, 2010

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WHEN SHE was four, the daughter of friends would circle the dining room table during political discussions, waiting for one of the adults to use a word that her nursery school teacher had admonished the class never to use. When one of us inevitably used the offending word, she would wag her finger and scold: “Don’t say ‘stupid!’ ’’

Politeness notwithstanding, the announcement by an Israeli bureaucrat that additional housing had been approved in East Jerusalem, made while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel and just after the Palestinian Authority had finally been persuaded to resume peace negotiations with Israel, however indirectly, was stupid and indefensible.

And that is why the Israeli government made no pretense at defending it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized abjectly for the announcement, took immediate steps to effectively suspend it — and then apologized some more. This was all appropriate. Equally appropriate was Biden’s acceptance of the apology, and his statement that it was time to get back to the work of negotiating peace.

Still the Obama administration has opted to turn these events into something that borders on ugly. Knowing full well that the Israeli governmental coalition is a complicated affair that the prime minister has worked hard to carry with him in order that Palestinian demands can be met, and knowing that Netanyahu had already apologized for the announcement, the Obama administration deliberately took a course that it knew would inflame anti-Israeli intransigence throughout the Arab world, and would undermine support for Israel in the United States.

First, the president sent out Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to condemn the Israeli bureaucratic stupidity as an “insult to the United States,’’ and then he sent out spokesmen Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod to continue the assault on Israel, feeding the outrageous nonsense that Israel’s internal debate over how to protect its citizens constituted a threat to American servicemen.

Notably, this was from an administration that had stayed conspicuously silent for 14 months while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas refused even to negotiate with Israel, and as Abbas openly pursued a strategy of stonewalling peace talks because he could do so without fear of any consequences. Indeed, the administration has from its inception purchased the proverbial Brooklyn Bridge of Middle East affairs, namely, the false notion that Israeli settlements are the impediment to peace.

The Palestinian Authority has in the last decade alone repeatedly rejected two-state solutions with Israel that would have involved an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip where there are no Jewish settlements, has made it clear that it does not have an issue with housing projects here or there; rather, it is committed on paper and by deed to the destruction of any state of Israel, regardless of borders.

This makes the Obama administration’s position that settlements are the impediment to peace worse than silly.

Indeed, it is a position that is dangerous. When those who have long harbored the view that it is only a matter of time before the United States can be peeled away from Israel hear words that confirm their view, any incentive they may have had to make peace with Israel disappears and, indeed, the incentive to be intransigent grows.

The first year of the Obama administration has illustrated the point: while administration officials promoted the view that Israeli settlements were the problem, Palestinian President Abbas ceased negotiating with Israel, and the Arab world spurned steps to normalize relations with the Jewish state. The administration’s descent into petulance will only make Arab rejectionism of Israel more intractable.

By the same token, when the administration resorts to the sort of ugliness that it has over the last week, it raises serious questions among Israelis and others about whether Obama can be trusted to protect the security of Israel. This, in turn, hardens the suspicion of the Israeli right that the president is prepared to sacrifice Israeli security in order to garner the political capital that comes with proclaiming a diplomatic win, and makes it less likely that the right will take risks for peace — at least risks dictated by the United States.

No one has a monopoly when it comes to the stupidity market, just like no one has a monopoly on the desire for peace. But the Obama administration’s performance over the past week has taken a real mistake on the part of the Israeli government, and managed to make matters worse.

Jeff Robbins, a former US delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission under President Clinton, is an attorney at Mintz Levin.

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