Bibi the Conqueror

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March 12, 2010

You’ve really got to hand it to the Netanyahu government. They looked the Vice President of the United States squarely in the eye and, through a piece of random spittle, managed to once again hit the Obama Administration and come out standing.

The massive insult to the US of announcing new construction in Jerusalem just as the Vice President was in the middle of a series of well-planned photo ops was almost certainly not premeditated. The image of the Israeli government as an organized bureaucracy draws giggles from anyone who has ever worked in that government, and this particular incarnation is more chaotic than most.

In fact, the whole incident was a pack of mice frightening a herd of elephants. A small ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem set the whole thing in motion. Perhaps Eli Yishai intentionally announced the approval of a plan for 1,600 new housing units for them to insult Joe Biden or remind Netanyahu how badly he needs Shas in his coalition. Or, perhaps he was also caught unawares.

Netanyahu almost certainly was not in on this, though it is still his responsibility as Prime Minister and he may have allowed this chaotic system to continue so that he always has plausible deniability. In any case, the small wheels kept turning the big ones here, and it didn’t stop with Bibi.

The US response to all of this was schizophrenic. Biden, with the President’s direct approval “condemned” the Israeli announcement. That’s no small thing. An American condemnation of Israel has become almost unheard of. Even major Jewish organizations could not fault the Vice President for using such harsh language in the face of such an embarrassing incident.

But then things calmed. The US realized that the right-wing sentiments that set this ball in motion wanted to scupper the “proximity talks” that Biden came here to launch. They determined not to let that happen. So, they accepted Netanyahu’s and Yishai’s apologies and sent a clear message to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that they expected the talks to go forward.

The US is continuing to make grumbling noises. Indications point to the administration indeed being offended by Israel’s behavior. Its mood was surely not improved by Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon brashly stating that Israel would make “no more concessions” during his trip to Washington. But the failure of proximity talks before they even start would embarrass them further. And, while AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups could not defend Israeli behavior here, the Obama Administration does not want to make Israel an election issue with Democrats already looking at significant losses in November.

So, Bibi has now put the onus back on the Palestinians. After all, he says, this was a regrettable incident, but the building won’t actually begin “for years” and therefore there’s no reason for the Palestinians to back out of the talks. And he still got all the pledges of friendship and unity, of action on Iran, and dedication to Israel’s military edge he wanted. That, friends, is how you make lemonade out of lemons.

When it was subsequently revealed, though, that Israel has plans for 50,000 new units in East Jerusalem, the problem becomes much clearer. It also becomes clear that Israel is moving forward with its plans in absolute defiance of the principle of avoiding making unilateral changes on the ground.

All of this raises a question for Americans in general and American Jews in particular. Just how long will we tolerate this kind of arrogant behavior from an ally, and a state which most of us continue to support?

The Netanyahu government is a magnification of past Israeli behavior. There is nothing horribly evil here; it is normal political behavior, business as usual. One determines what can be done without consequences that make the action too expensive. And the United States is the determinant of those boundaries.

But since the beginning of the Clinton Administration, those parameters have loosened dramatically. Some contend this is due to the massive growth (mostly during the 1980s) of the influence of AIPAC and other pro-Israel political organizations. I find this overly simplistic, but it is just as wrong to ignore the strength of such groups as a major factor.

The reasons, I think, for the last three administrations to have behaved as they have toward Israel vary. For Clinton, it was due to the birth of the peace process, something he had little to do with but wanted to get credit for and to manage. For Dubya, it was a real convergence of interests between his neo-conservative strategists and their Israeli counterparts in maneuvering “wars on terror” into fundamental policy and domestic agendas.

For Obama, it has thus far been attributable to lack of political will, some divisions in the ranks as to how to deal with the Middle East, and overwhelming domestic crises left behind by the previous administration.

But presidents change. The American people do not. And the current Israeli government’s behavior has reached a point of hubris certainly not seen since the days of Yitzhak Shamir, and perhaps not even then. They have repeatedly spit in the figurative face of the United States (not to mention Turkey and other countries relatively friendly to Israel) and have paid no price for doing so.

Or so they believe. And indeed, it may well be that these Israeli leaders themselves may not ever pay any price. But Israel very likely will.

It is quite astounding to see the tepid American public reaction to Israel’s insulting behavior. Ayalon’s statement was crude and, in the heels of the insult to Biden should have provoked quite a reaction. I told a friend to imagine what would have happened if an embarrassing incident comparable to this had happened with Ehud Barak in any other country, the US included. Israelis would have been up in arms, even if the government played it down.

Here, there’s been nothing. And in my view, this is giving both Israel and the mainstream American Jewish community a false sense of security. In Washington, in private conversations, love for Israel has never been lower. And, from what I can glean from colleagues around the country as well as in the various news outlets and the blogosphere, this is true throughout the US.

A recent Gallup poll showed Israeli popularity in the US as high as it has ever been. So this discontent has not translated into any popular impact. But one has to wonder how long that can last if Israel continues to obstruct American plans in the region.

Netanyahu has essentially called Obama’s bluff. He bet that Obama would not employ significant pressure on Israel for fear of domestic repercussions and he won. That provides a great boon to the camp that contends that the Israel Lobby controls American policy, even when it directs that policy against immediate American interests as determined by the White House.

I don’t buy that argument, but the more traction it gains, the more Israel stands to lose in the US. It is truly astounding that Israel has been able to act as it has without provoking popular American outrage. I doubt that can be counted on to continue. Because in the end, Israel is not working with its steadfast ally, but contending with it.

Israel believes Americans will put up with that forever. I am more dubious, and I fear that when that worm turns, its momentum will be impossible to reverse. Israel should be more wary. If the United States was a true friend, it would act with more political courage and treat Israel as it should be treated—like any other country the US needs to work with, and thus has some expectations of.

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