Monday, July 20, 2009

Illusions of the Israeli political consensus

I think that the Netanyahu government is making a serious mistake in thinking that the Obama administration is not serious about stopping building in the settlements and in East Jerusalem. And it's not just the current government that is making this mistake. Ehud Olmert's statement a couple of days ago that the U.S. administration is making a mistake in insisting on moving on the settlements now is also ill-considered. Perhaps in the current Israeli political consensus the settlements are no big deal, but that is certainly not how the Palestinians think about them. The Palestinians look at the constant increase in the area of the West Bank taken by the settlements (especially those that cut off the northern from the southern West Bank, and those that cut off Arab East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, like Har Homa) and see any hope of a viable Palestinian state dissolving before their eyes.

Another article in today's Haaretz spells out the U.S. administration's position on building in Jerusalem:
The United States views East Jerusalem as no different than an illegal West Bank outpost with regard to its demand for a freeze on settlement construction, American sources have informed both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

This clarification came in the context of a growing crisis in U.S.-Israel relations over the planned construction of some 20 apartments for Jews in the Shepherd Hotel, in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The U.S. has demanded that the project be halted, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the cabinet meeting Sunday that "Israel will not agree to edicts of this kind in East Jerusalem."
The statement by Netanyahu yesterday that Israel has sovereignty (ריבונות) over all of Jerusalem is not accepted by any other nation on earth, and certainly not by the United States (if the U.S. accepted the Israeli claim, then American passports issued in Jerusalem would read "Jerusalem, Israel" instead of the current "Jerusalem," [and I include the comma because that's how my passport, issued in Jerusalem in 1999, read]). Netanyahu also apparently thinks that Jews in the Obama administration (like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel) should agree with the right-wing positions of the Likud Party, instead of working for the president who appointed them (as Akiva Eldar says in today's Haaretz: "We want our Jews in the administration to be blind to the settlements and deaf to the complaints of the Arabs").

Eldar's column today is one of the few I've read in the Israeli press these last few weeks that reveals any real understanding of the position of the Obama administration - a position which I, for one, believe is necessary for any kind of peace-making to go forward between Israel and the Palestinians. And American Jews support Obama in his actions. From my discussions with friends here, I've definitely gotten the impression that they misread how American Jews feel about Obama and about Israel - they seem to think that most American Jews are right-wing and religious and support the settlements. The opposite is true.

Eldar writes:
Back during his election campaign Obama made it clear that he did not have to join Likud to be a friend of Israel. Opinion polls in the United States revealed that the views of most Jews are closer to the attitudes of organizations like the Reform movement, American Friends of Peace Now and J Street, which support a two-state solution and eschew Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's doctrine - and above all, largely object to the settlements.

The conversation Obama held with representatives of the Jewish community last week confirms that Netanyahu is drafting them for the wrong war. Even his oldest supporters did not attack the president's position on the settlements, and made do with a complaint about the high profile given to disputes over the issue of natural growth in the settlements. One of the guests at that meeting said that history showed that exposing the differences between the U.S. and Israel does not help to advance peace. [This was Malcolm Hoenlein of the mis-named Organization of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, who never saw anything wrong with the Bush administration's effectively doing nothing about peace during its entire eight years].

"This was not my reading of the lessons of the last eight years," Obama responded without flinching. Moreover, he said he would not shy away from a willingness to pressure all parties, including Israel, if that is in the best interests of the United States and Israel. Obama did not hesitate to tell his Jewish interlocutors that beyond the special commitment to Israel's security, his policy would be completely even-handed. If it became necessary, Obama said, he would speak to Israelis, as he had done to the Arab and Muslim world, to help them to achieve some kind of self-reflection.

Obama has internalized what his predecessors refused to understand: the traditional supporters of the Israeli right are growing old, or losing their relevance. They are giving way to younger, liberal forces who identify with Obama's values. In the "best" case, Netanyahu's incitement against the "self-hating Jews" will do to them what his whispered comment in the ear of Rabbi Kaduri "those leftists are not Jews" did to Israelis a decade ago - it turned them against him.
Eldar is absolutely correct.


  1. I suspect the reason that most of your Israeli friends (and many of mine) imagine that most American Jews are right-wing and support the settlements is that AIPAC has for so long dominated the American discourse about Israel. I could not be more grateful to have Obama in office, for a whole host of reasons, but one of them is that he is (baruch Hashem!) a much-needed voice on sanity on these issues, and one which reflects my own positions and beliefs.

  2. Yes, indeed. I am even more grateful that he was elected every day I hear about how the administration really seems to be seeking peace.

  3. Problem with Obama's actions are that he wanted to start out by building confidence on different sides. The problem is that he wanted to build confidence by movements that are not congruent: he did not push Palestinians on anything (at least that's what it looks like in the news); he pushed on Arab states to open up skies to Israeli commercial flights, although Arab states are somewhat extrinsic to the matters and are not proxies for the PA; he pushed Israeli government to act contrary to what was essentially a tacit agreement between Olmert and Bush (even NYTimes commented on this tacit understanding at the time) - thereby undermining any confidence this phase was supposed to raise.