This is a guest post by AKUS
The Guardian has jumped on the Jerusalem housing spat of the last week in Israel with an obsessive coverage that is rapidly threatening to generate more articles even than its recent coverage of the unsolved mystery of the murder in Dubai of a Hamas arms-procurer. There is an unholy glee evident – “Aha – Israel really stepped in it this time! Oh, frabjous joy! We can really stick it to the Zionists now!”
It seems that the smaller the issue, the more vigorously the Guardian tries to blow on the embers in order to fan a conflagration. Since March 7th, I count 36 articles connected to this topic (an average of 3 a day), at least one editorial, and including two or more audio clips with two of the warhorses – Ian Black and Jonathan Freedland – solemnly tolling the bells to call the faithful to Israel’s funeral.
Let’s get a few facts clear first, since this is not “Comment is Free”, where opinion and ignorance reign supreme.
There is a suburb of Jerusalem called Ramat Shlomo which is a kilometer or so beyond the Green Line and which was developed in 1995. Despite the attempt by endless repetition to create the false impression that the Green Line as a “border” between Israel and a future Palestinian state, it is nothing of the sort, and the Rhodes Agreements and the most important UN resolutions have made it clear that final borders will be agreed by negotiation between the parties (intended to be Israel and Jordan, by the way).
Ramat Shlomo houses over 20,000 mainly or solely Orthodox Jews and it is clear that in any agreement, perhaps using land swaps, it will remain part of Israel and part of Jerusalem. Its proximity to the Old City makes it ideal for this community whose members can easily walk to the Western Wall for prayers on Shabbat or a Holy Day (they are not permitted to use cars or other transport on the Sabbath). Eli Yishai, a member of the Sephardi religious party, Shas, which holds a gun to the head of the government since the government would fall if Shas walked out, deliberately or thoughtlessly announced or had a mid-level bureaucrat announce the addition of 1,600 new apartments to be built in this existing suburb, starting about three years from now, just as Israel’s good friend and strong supporter Vice President Biden was in Israel trying to facilitate the start of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The latter, for reasons best known to themselves and possibly due to rivalry between Fatah and Hamas have been resisting returning to negotiations ever since President Obama gave them the perfect excuse to do nothing about a year ago by demanding that Israel stop all building in the occupied territories. The US now demanded that the insult to Mr. Biden be avenged by Israel retracting its decision to build those apartments.
This immediately had two results on the ground – the Palestinians of course once again said they would not meet with Israel till this decision was rescinded (their refusal to meet being, of course, depicted as Israel’s fault – they are playing the victim card once again) and, as Moslems, whenever something happens they disapprove of, orchestrated a massive outbreak of violence (“day of rage”) with Molotov cocktails and stones hurled at police and others and replete with calls to defend Al Aksa mosque against its imminent demolition to make way for the building of the third Jewish Temple, which is always an excellent way of whipping up the Arab street. Incidentally, that charge always amuses me, since it flies in the face of Palestinian denials that there ever was a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount, let alone two of them!
The crux of the matter is, in fact, that Israel sees Jerusalem and its suburbs as an Israeli city. It annexed what is known as East Jerusalem after the 6 Day War having driven out the Jordanians who were illegally occupying the area, and Ramat Shlomo is not a new or special suburb any more than other heavily built-up areas such as French Hill. Israel has made it clear that these suburbs will not be given to the Palestinians when and if any agreement is ever reached, and, in fact, in the several near misses that have occurred when agreement was almost reached (e.g., between Olmert and Abbas just before Olmert left office) the Palestinians had accepted this position in return for other concessions. The Palestinians, when it suits them, like now, back away from these nearly concluded agreements, in the hope that the US will somehow pressure Israel to give them East Jerusalem.
Now to the Guardian’s version, or versions, of what is going on.
Most of the Guardian’s articles were simply gleeful attempts to paint the disagreement over this issue between Israel and the US in the blackest terms possible. But two stood out particularly. One was a strange article entitled Israel must help US tackle Iran by Meir Javedanfar, often a rather level-headed commentator on events in Iran, and the other was one filled with suppositions and inaccuracies presented by Jonathan Freedland, as a written version of his similar audio commentary on the web-site: Israel slapped America – and may have jolted Obama awake.
Regarding Javedanfar’s article, it should be obvious that no senior American feels that it needs Israel’s help to deal with Iran. But of course, there is a sub-plot at work here, summed up in the sub-header to his article –“ Israeli settlement-building is undermining the security of US forces, limiting its ability to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat”. There is an attempt to link the I/P conflict and settlements directly to US activity in the Middle East, and this has been justified by vastly overstating a comment made by General Petraeus last week. Javedanfar goes far beyond Petraeus’ comment (which he immediately softened) with the following extraordinary statement:
“In the Pentagon’s view, the Obama administration’s inability to stop the expansion of settlements is eroding America’s military posture in the Middle East. Such erosion could embolden Muslim extremists to increase their attacks on US forces in the region”.
It is, of course, absolute nonsense to claim that Israel’s activity “erodes America’s military posture” and “emboldens” extremists whose goal is to drive every last American out of the region and, if possible, launch attacks in the US. If Israel did not even exist, it is America’s military activity in the Middle East that “has emboldened Muslim terrorists” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia etc. and put American troops “in harm’s way”, as the euphemism goes. I do not intend to get into a discussion about the rights and wrongs of the US military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it should be clear to the meanest intelligence that some Moslems use the I/P conflict as a way of whipping up support and this would be replaced by some other tactic if peace broke out between Israel and the Palestinians.
From this, in a leap that defies logic, Javedanfar draws the peculiar conclusion that if only the US could be seen to pressure Israel into stopping settlement activity (and from Israel’s point of view, building in Ramat Shlomo is not “settlement activity”) this would convince other Arab nations that the US is serious about standing up to Iran and help it “build a regional coalition against Iran”. The stumbling block to the regional coalition, Javedanfar asserts, is that if Israeli settlement activity is not stopped at the US behest then “regional players such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE [will not] take America’s promises to stand up to Iran seriously when Obama cannot even convince his best friend in the region to assist him”.
Frankly, I don’t even know how to repudiate two such bizarre claims. Surely no Arab leader can see any connection between the threat posed by a nuclear Iran capable of firing nuclear warhead-tipped missiles that can reach Cairo and 1,600 apartments in Jerusalem, or even a bunch of hill-top crazies on the West Bank. Which country has been most insistent about the threat from Iran, and faces the gravest threat of nuclear annihilation, if not Israel? The US has always acted unilaterally in the Middle East and restrained Israel, and would laugh at the idea that without Israel’s “help” it is unable to deal with Iran.
Jonathan Freedland’s article was worse in its BBC-like superficiality and inventiveness. Space permits just two examples.
He notes Hillary Clinton’s (justified) rebuke to Netanyahu, but totally overlooks her reiteration of the deep ties between the US and Israel and “rejected talk of a relationship in crisis” (NPR). You can hear her comment on this clip from national Public Radio:
Tensions Build Around New Israeli Settlements
“HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. secretary of state: Oh, I don’t buy that. I have been around, not that long, but a long time. We have a — an absolute commitment to Israel’s security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel.”
He then baldly states as a fact an invented and exaggerated scenario describing Obama’s supposed anger at what had happened:
“One explanation is the face-value one: that Obama was “incandescent with rage” at the one-fingered salute that greeted his deputy, and even more furious at Netanyahu’s subsequent attempts at an apology.”
I have searched the Internet for the source of this statement, and, unless Mr. Freedland can provide, it, it is simply an invention first presented in an article on March 15th in the Telegraph. Freedland uncritically reused the following unsourced statement and even changed the context from “the Obama administration” (i.e., Axelrod) to Obama:
“The Obama administration was incandescent with rage over this straw-that-broke-the-camel’s back blunder.”
I have not found another source for this extraordinary overstatement of the US reaction.
Finally, we are assisted by a comment by commenter SantaMoniker on Freedland’s article. She collected a list of articles from the US press which demonstrates both bemusement at the over-the-top response of David Axelrod, and predictions that the effort to lean on Israel, if it occurs, will simply reinforce Palestinian obduracy, and coined the following interesting perspective:
“The view from the Potomac looks a lot different than the view from the Thames”.
Washington Post editorial: The U.S. quarrel with Israel
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S Middle East diplomacy failed in his first year in part because he chose to engage in an unnecessary and unwinnable public confrontation with Israel over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Over the past six months Mr. Obama’s envoys gingerly retreated from that fight and worked to build better relations with the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Last week the administration finally managed to strike a deal for the launching of indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks. So it has been startling — and a little puzzling — to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state.
A larger question concerns Mr. Obama’s quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government. He is not the first president to do so; in fact, he is not even the first to be hard on Mr. Netanyahu. But tough tactics don’t always work: Last year Israelis rallied behind Mr. Netanyahu, while Mr. Obama’s poll ratings in Israel plunged to the single digits. The president is perceived by many Israelis as making unprecedented demands on their government while overlooking the intransigence of Palestinian and Arab leaders. If this episode reinforces that image, Mr. Obama will accomplish the opposite of what he intends.
Washington Post: Allies everywhere feeling snubbed by President Obama
The contretemps between President Obama and Israel needs to be seen in a broader global context. The president who ran against “unilateralism” in the 2008 campaign has worse relations overall with American allies than George W. Bush did in his second term.
Washington Post: With subtle shift in nuance, Hillary Clinton reiterates U.S. stance on Israel
In the face of bipartisan concern over U.S. criticism of Israeli policies, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday reiterated the administration’s demand for a “full commitment” to peace talks from Israel but also ever so slightly bolstered her rhetorical support for the Jewish state.
I’ll give the WSJ the last word which stands in direct opposition to both Guardian articles:
Obama’s Turn Against Israel
The U.S. makes a diplomatic crisis out of a blunder.
Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents….
As for the West Bank settlements, it is increasingly difficult to argue that their existence is the key obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel withdrew all of its settlements from Gaza in 2005, only to see the Strip transform itself into a Hamas statelet and a base for continuous rocket fire against Israeli civilians….
Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.
I’ll take the view from the Potomac – not the schoolboyish glee from the Thames.