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So was the Obama administration looking for a fight with Israel?

An odd set of circumstances and an ill timed Israeli announcement has evoked a very high profile and seemingly bitter denunciation of Israel by the US.  And, instead of stepping it down, after the initial condemnation, the US seems to be continuing to step it up.

It all comes after a visit to Israel by VP Joe Biden coincided with an Israeli announcment that it had approved the construction of 1600 housing units in Jerusalem.  The US chose to take that personally – literally.   Variously described as an “insult”, a “slap in the face” and “affront” to the Vice President and the administration, the problem was escalated by a phone call by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to PM Benjamin Netanyahu.  This weekend David Axelrod kept the controvery alive on the Sunday talk shows.

So what’s up with all of this?  Certainly its fair to say that Biden was embarrassed by the announcement, something he had no idea was going to be made, much less coincide with his visit.  And it is certainly clear, after you read about the announcment and how it was made, that no one was more embarrassed and surprised than Netanyahu.  As he’s admitted subsequently, that it was ill timed and shouldn’t have been made while Biden was there.

End of problem?  Hardly.  It continues to grow, fester and escalate.   But the announcement, other than its timing, isn’t something which should surprise anyone.  We’re not talking about the West Bank here – where Israel has promised not to build.  We’re talking about East Jerusalem in an ultra-orthodox Jewish neighborhood.   It is an area over which Israel has adamently refused to negotiate.  This is not something of which the US is unaware:

Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on Thursday defended Israel’s decision to approve construction of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, saying sovereignty over the capital has never been negotiable and that Israel would not make any more concessions for peace.

Again, if true that “sovereignty over the capital has never been neotiable” why, other than the diplomatic embarrassment, has the decision suddenly become a matter of concern soliciting demands from Clinton to include one that reverses the housing decision?

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary thinks that part of the reaction is simply indicative of the personality of this administration. Its temperment, if you will:

It’s attack, attack, attack — just as they do any domestic critic (even the Supreme Court Chief Justice). It’s about bullying and discrediting, trying to force the opponent into a corner. And in this case, their opponent is plainly the Israeli government. For that is the party the Obami is now demanding make further concessions to… well, to what end is not clear. Perhaps we are back to regime change — an effort to topple the duly elected government of Israel to obtain a negotiating partner more willing to yield to American bullying.

The language the Obami employ – ”personal,” “insulting,” and “affront” – suggests an unusual degree of personal peevishness and hostility toward an ally. That, I suppose, is the mentality of Chicago pols and of those who regard Israel not as a valued friend but as an irritant. And it is the language not of negotiators but of intimidators.

I certainly think that’s part of it. But it still doesn’t explain it all. That’s more about style – and while I think it is a fair description of this administration’s style, I’m still not convinced that answers the mail in this regard. As Rubin goes on to remind us, 15 years ago the official US policy declared that Jerusalem should be the “undivided capital of Israel”. It seems a little odd to get this excited about the internal zoning decisions concerning that city if that’s our policy.

So what else is it? How does an embarrassing situation become escalated into a diplomatic confrontation with an ally? Well, there’s an interesting article in Foreign Policy magazine that says it is much more than just a matter of embarrassment. And, if I read it correctly, the US was, most likely, looking for the diplomatic equivalent of a fight with Israel if this is true:

On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM’s mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region, and that Mitchell himself was (as a senior Pentagon officer later bluntly described it) “too old, too slow … and too late.”

The January Mullen briefing was unprecedented. No previous CENTCOM commander had ever expressed himself on what is essentially a political issue; which is why the briefers were careful to tell Mullen that their conclusions followed from a December 2009 tour of the region where, on Petraeus’s instructions, they spoke to senior Arab leaders. “Everywhere they went, the message was pretty humbling,” a Pentagon officer familiar with the briefing says. “America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding.

You connect the dots.  Was this rather minor problem the perfect excuse to try and recover our image of strength?  As many of us have been saying, 2009 was a year of assessment when other world leaders took stock of the new administration.  It looks like the Arab world’s verdict is in.

The briefing went further to say that the weakness and Israeli “intransigence” (as described by the various Arab leaders) was actually putting the lives of our soldiers in the CENTCOM theater at further risk.

This briefing and its revelations has been mostly unreported, although Jake Tapper did hint at it when questioning David Axelrod on ABC’s “This Week”:

TAPPER: All right, last question. Vice President Biden went to Israel this week and he was greeted by a slap in the face, the announcement by the Israeli government of the approval of new housing units in an Arab section of Jerusalem. President Obama was said to be very upset about it. Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton made very strong comments about it. Will there be any consequences, tangible consequences beyond the tough talk? And does Israel’s intransigence on the housing issue put the lives of U.S. troops at risk?

AXELROD: Well, look, what happened there was an affront. It was an insult, but that’s not the most important thing. What it did was it made more difficult a very difficult process. We’ve just gotten proximity, so-called proximity talks going between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and this seemed calculated to undermine that, and that was — that was distressing to everyone who is promoting the idea of peace — and security in the region.

Israel is a strong and special ally. The bonds run deep. But for just that very reason, this was not the right way to behave. That was expressed by the secretary of state, as well as the vice president. I am not going to discuss what diplomatic talks we’ve had underneath that, but I think the Israelis understand clearly why we were upset and what, you know, what we want moving forward.

TAPPER: I hate to say this, but yes or no, David, does the intransigence of the Israeli government on the housing issue, yes or no, does it put U.S. troops lives at risk?

AXELROD: I believe that that region and that issue is a flare point throughout the region, and so I’m not going to put it in those terms. But I do believe that it is absolutely imperative, not just for the security of Israel and the Palestinian people, who were, remember, at war just a year ago, but it is important for our own security that we move forward and resolve this very difficult issue.

Tapper raised the issue brought up by the CENTCOM briefing and Axelrod simply avoided it.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians have taken the escalated diplomatic row as an excuse to bail on the peace talks again much to no one’s surprise.

Is this row all about posturing for the Arabs in reaction to the findings of the CENTCOM briefing?  Is it an attempt to strengthen our image in those circles? If so this is a pretty poor way of doing that.  It accepts the premise that Israel is the only problem and therefore it is only Israel that must concede to solve the problem.  Read Clinton’s demands if you doubt that’s not the case.   It also identifies as a problem something that has previously never been considered one.

In the meantime, much like the people of the US, Arab leaders are not going to be impressed by only talk – something the administration is long on.  It is going to demand action – something which puts the administration in a very awkward position given what they’re now demanding vs. what Israel may be willing to do.  And even if Israel capitulates, it will simply mean more demands – all to the detriment of our strongest ally in the region.

A very interesting situation brought on by perceived weakness and a diplomatic style akin to a pit bull at a cat show.  It will be interesting to monitor the situation and see what comes of it, but, as one Israeli envoy noted, US/Israel relations are at their lowest ebb in 35 years.  And I doubt this has substantially increased our image among the Arabs.

~McQ

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26 Responses to So was the Obama administration looking for a fight with Israel?

  • “as one Israeli envoy noted, US/Israel relations are at their lowest ebb in 35 years.”
    No no, it’s great, our foreign policy is awesome, it’s the best ever, certainly better than under that guy George W. Bush.
     
     

  • I heard the Tapper premise (“approval of new housing units in an Arab section of Jerusalem”) attacked yesterday as incorrect.  It seems the announcement was about the approval of new housing units in the Jewish section of Jerusalem (which would be a non-story), or so the story goes.

  • Sorry, but this post is just clueless.
    “And it is certainly clear, after you read about the announcment and how it was made, that no one was more embarrassed and surprised than Netanyahu. ”
    You must be joking. How on earth can you possibly believe this?
    “if true that “sovereignty over the capital has never been neotiable” why, other than the diplomatic embarrassment,”
    Once again, how clueless is this? East Jerusalem will be the capital of any eventual Palestinian state. Not only is soverignity over E. Jerulsalem “negotiable” – it is, and always has been the acknolweledged hard kernel at the center of all negotiations.
    Are you totally new to these issues or something?
    “It accepts the premise that Israel is the only problem and therefore it is only Israel that must concede to solve the problem.”
    No – it certainly does not accept the premise that Israel is the ONLY problem – but it does accept the obvious fact that SOME Israeli actions are very much a PART of the problem – a blindingly obvious point that many in this country have spent a lot of effort ignoring or denying.

    • Yeah,funny I learned to ignore the housing units after I was asked to ignore the rockets fired from territory not occupied by Israel.  Maybe if certain people spent more of their capital on housing units and improvements instead of rockets they wouldn’t need to keep complaining about their plight.  Ya think?
       
      Care to discuss how East Jerusalem became Jordanian? or is that part of the history you prefer to ignore?
       
      Maybe if the Palestinian government didn’t promote destruction of Israel as a necessary step to their existence I’d be more agreeable to pressing the Israeli’s into being ‘reasonable’.
       

    • How on earth can you possibly believe this?

      How can I believe it? Oh I don’t know, because he said so, Joe? Have you been following this at all?

      East Jerusalem will be the capital of any eventual Palestinian state.

      Do a little reading Joe (that’s why there are links in the post) – our policy is an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Has been for 15 years. That makes it pretty “non-negotiable”. Here, let me help you out:

      “This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Jerusalem Embassy Act, making it official United States policy that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel,” Congressman Kirk said. ”

      Kirk helped write the act. Link in post.

      No – it certainly does not accept the premise that Israel is the ONLY problem

      Yes it does. See the Clinton demands – or did you not read those either?

      • “How can I believe it? Oh I don’t know, because he said so, Joe?”
         
        Wow, you are easy. Why are you so trusting of the word of foreign leaders, but not our own?
        “Our policy is an undivided Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
         
        Actually, it isn’t. That law has been viewed, officially, as an unconstitutional infringement by the Congress on executive power – by Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. It was a pure political pandering – never signed by the President. Even so, it does not speak to the question of exclusive sovereignty. It stipulates that Israel can declare Jerusalem its capital (no one has any problem with that) – and that the city remain undivided – which could could be accomplished by having a joint sovereignty arrangement for a joint capital – for example.
        Sovereignty over Jerusalem was very much a part of all the Camp David talks – which took place after this law was passed. The issue was obviously negotiated. Barak even made some territorial concessions in areas that are now part of Jerusalem. So the notion that this is non-negotiable is ludicrous – it is, of course, a bargaining position. That should be obvious.
         

        • Wow, you are easy

          In the face of evidence to the contrary, I have no reason not to believe it. You, of course have evidence (not opinion) to the contrary?

          Oh, and here – argue with this:

          http://www.knesset.gov.il/laws/special/eng/basic10_eng.htm

          Thanks for stopping by.

          • I’ll note that while I agree with Bruce’s post, despite the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the US Embassy in Israel still remains in Tel Aviv, right where it was located 15 years ago.  That does tend to suggest that whatever talk we may talk in that regard, we haven’t exactly been walking the walk.

          • While true, it doesn’t change the fact that Israeli law, as cited in one of my comment, calls Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel. And, of course, the point is, they’re unlikely to “negotiate” that as stated.

          • McQ… Israeli law, as cited in one of my comment, calls Jerusalem the undivided capital of Israel.

            Say… I thought that one of the central paradigms of Imeme’s foreign policy (snort!) was that we wouldn’t meddle in other countries’ internal affairs.  You know: like when we kept mum about the mullahs butchering Iranians in the streets when they were protesting for a bit of democracy?

            If this wasn’t really happening, I’d swear that I was reading a satire of American foreign policy.

          • “I thought that one of the central paradigms of Imeme’s foreign policy (snort!) was that we wouldn’t meddle in other countries’ internal affairs.”

            As with all of Obama’s policies, this one had a time limit and it passed long ago!

        • What’s obvious is that you’ve come trolling as Trolls do, took on McQ and got your ass handed back to you.  You’ve been hooked, landed, and gutted but still your small mind does not accept the fact.

          Hint 1:  In case youhaven’t gotten it by now, when McQ says “Thanks for stopping by” it means he has already rebaited his hook and is casting for the next troll to come to the pond.

          Hint 2:  Next time, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight!

  • Good thing we don’t have Chimpy McHalliburton and his cowboy diplomacy anymore right?
    Right?

  • I’m a bit surprised at the demands made by Clinton.  The Israelis will play along with the first one, but they’ll balk at any of the others, and the Obama administration is unlikely to follow up with anything more than words.  But if that’s all that they do, then any attempt at negotiating with any other nation in the area (such as, for example… IRAN) will be met with gleeful attempts at rubbing this in our noses.  Why not stop at the first demand, and put Israel on the spot?

  • The Isrealis are getting the clear message that they are on their own.

    Get ready, oil’s going to $400 per barrel after strike on Iran.

  • So Petraeus sends some briefers to Mullen and the take away is that “the Arab leaders” are dissatisfied with the progress of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Oh, and that “puts US troops at risk”, at least in their opinion.
    Tell me any time after 1979 when the claim of being dissatisfied with the progress of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians wouldn’t be the status quo! Hell, every American president since Nixon has been dismayed at how non-productive these talks are.
    Put that aside for a minute. It seems to me that someone as allegedly smart as Petraeus is, would avoid linkage between peace talks and regional strategy at all costs. It just doesn’t pass the smell test. Either there was some sort of “briefing” and the information passed to Mullen has been misconstrued, or this has been deliberately mischaracterized to fit someone’s agenda. I generally tend to agree with the sentiment that it’s usually better to presume human failing rather than conspiracy. But in this case, because it’s Washington, I’m inclined to go with conspiracy.
    Just to bolster my argument, I  agree with the comment above that our current foreign policy is so much more awesome than it was under George W. Bush. At least in kind of a Jimmy Carter way.

  • Well, I guess one way of looking tough is to pick on somebody who won’t fight back.

    Honduras, now Israel.  Hey, maybe Imeme can REALLY flex his muscles by invading Canada or sinking a British ship or something like that.

    What a mess.

    • Honduras, now Israel.  Hey, maybe Imeme can REALLY flex his muscles by invading Canada or sinking a British ship or something like that.

      Considering that the State Department has stabbed Britain in the back with respect to the Falkland Islands, I think Britain can safely be afforded a spot on that list.

  • Wow, you are easy. Why are you so trusting of the word of foreign leaders, but not our own?

    Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided,”
    Barack Obama said this as a candidate. Was he lying?

  • These subhumans strap bombs on babies to blow things up, yet we rush to believe them that Israel is the problem here?

    Someone’s been played.

  • JoeCItizen: “Sovereignty over Jerusalem was very much a part of all the Camp David talks – which took place after this law was passed. The issue was obviously negotiated.”

    Yes that is one of the major sticking points why there has never been and will never be a peace settlement. Israeli   will never give up East Jerusalem (read the history of them losing Jerusalem in 1947 and they swore once they got it back they would loss it over their dead bodies) and the Palestinians  will never capsulate that they will never get it. Of course Clinton tried to get them to negotiate on the point. Therefore your logical that it is negotiable assumes a peace deal is possible therefore it would have to be negotiable. That does not mean either side considered it negotiable only the U.S. mediators have to see it that way if they are ever to get a deal.
    So from a U.S. policy standpoint it is only negotiable in that the Palestinians have to give it up. That is unless Obama is now changing that policy and can assuming JoeCItizen is correct and it is un constitutional. The underlying consutionality argument at face value makes sense without me knowing the details of the actually law.
     

  • Congrats McQ, you got some props from Jim Geraghty at NRO.