Monday, 15 March 2010

Didn't You Get The Memo?

Politics and stupidity have a long, unhappy history together. Their confluence last week in the announcement of 1600 new housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of Jerusalem demonstrated to all that no one, Israeli, Palestinian, or American, has a patent on screwing up.

You may love Prime Minister Netanyahu, or you may hate him. Neither camp considers him an unintelligent man. Thus, the announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit of the approval of the new neighborhood, such a slap, or spit in the face of the Americans, is unlikely to have been timed by him or by his office. Beholden as he is to a number of elements in his government who feel marginalized by his partnership with Ehud Barak and his startling, though limited statements regarding the Palestinians in his Bar Ilan speech, perhaps he should have realized this was in the offing. It is instructive to note that two weeks ago, when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat delayed a plan for civic improvement and limited construction in Silwan (also in East Jerusalem) at Netanyahu’s request, there was only muted criticism from his right wing coalition partners. Perhaps they knew a bigger opportunity was waiting. Regardless of one’s political stripe, there is simply no excuse for ignorance if you are the Prime Minister of a country. Netanyahu should have known, and his apparent ignorance of the announcement was simply incompetent management.

The Palestinian Authority would seem to be pouncing on the brouhaha as an opportunity to step back from the negotiations they were dragged kicking and screaming to less than two weeks ago. They now refuse to engage in even the limited talks they agreed upon. Their well oiled propaganda machine has been stirring the pot of resentment over Israeli decisions to improve access for all to Jewish Holy sites such as the Machpela cave in Hebron (which would include funding for the mosque there as well) and Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem. There is even outrage over the rededication this week of the Hurva Synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, finally rebuilt after being blown to pieces by a Palestinian working with the Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948. Yet the PA has never been more needful of Israeli goodwill. Its internal corruption has reached astronomical proportions, with whistleblowers seeking asylum in Israel, and the only effective bureaucrat in government, Salam Fayyad, more and more marginalized. The increasingly professional PA security forces are all that is holding back a Hamas flood in the West Bank, and they are working more closely with the Israelis now than ever before, putting the lie to the PA’s noisemaking on the Ramat Shlomo issue. The step back reeks of fear and opportunism. Fear of looking weak to its Arab League enablers and the “Arab street”, opportunism in seeking to exploit a narrow wedge between the Americans and Israel. Regardless of how upset the Americans are this week, no real or apparent concession from Netanyahu will have a tangible effect on the PA’s predicament.

It has long been a “donne” or a given of American politics that in order to distract attention from dropping poll numbers and economic gloom at home, Presidents should embark on dynamic ventures abroad. Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel would seem to fall in this category. President Obama is, plainly put, suffering enormous drag on his dreams and reputation given the precarious nature of the economic recovery, spiraling federal debt, the jeopardization of his health care plans, and the defeat of a number of incumbent Democrats in recent one off elections. Sending a well known friend of Israel on a feel-good mission with ample opportunity for photos and smiles would have seemed an ideal way to demonstrate that the Obama inspired proximity talks were a grand idea.

What President Obama’s advisors, including David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, should have known is that there is a deep mistrust and some anger towards President Obama in Israel. It doesn’t stem, as some may think, from racism. Many Israelis were furious at the President for making the suffering of the Holocaust the sole justification for a Jewish state in his Cairo speech last year. In one sentence he managed to qualify Jewish rights by dint of persecution, ignore the ancestral, aboriginal rights of the Jewish people in their homeland, and elevate the credibility of the vicious radical left’s anti colonialist screed. Many wondered why he chose not to visit and speak to the USA’s strongest ally in the Middle East. Many question his State Department’s amnesia regarding commitments made to Israel in writing by the previous administration.

It also seems to have escaped the notice of much of the media that the Palestinian Authority has spent much of the last year refusing to start negotiations with the Israelis, ignoring Israeli concessions (narrow though they may have been) and maintaining maximalist demands that make real progress as much of a non starter as does Israeli construction in Ramat Shlomo. Far from a slap in the face, the Palestinian assault on American peacemaking has been a steady, unrelenting series of blows, and even its acquiescence last week to indirect talks fell far short of President Obama’s initial plan.

Most shockingly, didn’t the US get the memo? Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated from the outset of his conciliatory gestures such as the temporary halt in building in the West Bank that Jerusalem was not and would not be part of the equation. It is simply disingenuous of the Obama administration to expect and demand that which they knew they were not going to get. As stupid as the timing was on Israel’s part, the Obama administration should have realized, as the late House Speaker Tip O’Neil put it, that “All politics is local.” It is axiomatic that no Israeli government will survive a meaningful concession on Jerusalem. Netanyahu knows it, the Palestinians know it, and the Americans should have known.

Not one of them comes out of this situation looking good.