Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was unpleasantly surprised in Israel on Tuesday when the country’s Interior Ministry declared that it would expand housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem. Mr. Biden, who earlier that day had expressed American support on Israel’s security needs, condemned the announcement, which had been made without the knowledge of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What did the incident reflect about the state of the Obama administration’s relations with Israel and the future of talks with the Palestinians?
A Dust-Up Obscures Far Deeper Problems
The Obama administration is soldiering on in the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace by tweaking the approaches of its predecessors. It now seeks to further Palestinian institution building and economic development in the West Bank, isolate Hamas and Gaza, and get some kind of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations started that will move things in the direction of a two state solution.
Each of these ingredients may have made sense at a different time. The best time to have focused on Palestinian institution building, for instance, would have been in the late 1990s when there was a serious effort — with the support of the parliament — to build strong, professional and democratic institutions.
But since Hamas seized control of Gaza and Mahmoud Abbas seized control of the West Bank, the institutions being built have little connection with the societies they govern.
Some economic recovery will be possible — and has been taking place in the West Bank — but sustained economic development will not occur without a resolution of the underlying political problems. The policy of isolating Hamas and Gaza has not only had devastating humanitarian consequences; it has actually led to the Islamist movement’s entrenching itself even more deeply in control of the economy and political system of Gaza.
And the idea of negotiations at the present time — when the Palestinian leadership lacks the ability and the Israeli leadership lacks the willingness to build the basic elements of a two state solution — will lead to talks only for the sake of talks.
If a two state solution were to occur then a reversal of Israeli settlements would be a necessary condition. But it is nothing close to a sufficient condition. The current dust-up over building in Jerusalem obscures how much the other conditions are lacking.
Ill Will All Around
While there is absolutely nothing surprising about an Israeli decision to build 1,600 units in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, the ill-timed announcement during Biden’s visit exposes painfully the poor state of relations between the Obama administration and Israel. Although Prime Minister Netanyahu most likely was blindsided by the announcement, others in his coalition apparently thought it unproblematic to insult Biden and by association Obama.
And why should they? President Obama has shown Israelis neither consideration nor resolve. He failed to visit and use his much-vaunted powers of persuasion directly on Israelis last spring when he visited Egypt and Turkey; Obama also failed to show strength by imposing some consequence on Netanyahu when the Israeli leader refused to order a real freeze on settlements.
So now there is ill will and a lack of respect all around. The Palestinians probably hope this will redound to their benefit in the form of U.S. pressure on Israel, but it is more likely that Obama will see this episode as reason to disassociate himself from peace efforts even more than he has done in the past few months.
The Obama administration’s calls for a settlement freeze during 2009 differed from those of previous administrations because they were clear and unambiguous. The idea was to restore faith in the possibility of a negotiated solution to the Arab Israeli conflict by persuading Israel to make a gesture on this very important issue and Arab states to take steps toward normalizing relations.
The problem was that the Obama team was so overconfident that they failed to develop either a serious strategy to persuade the Israelis and Arabs or a Plan B in case of failure.
What this episode shows is not that it was wrong to focus on settlements, but that it was wrong to embark on a risky diplomatic venture without having the strategic thinking or fortitude to stick with it when the going got rough.
In this case, failed diplomacy did not leave the situation back where it was before Obama entered office, but did actual damage and set the diplomatic clock back nearly two decades, to an era when Israelis and Palestinians could not even sit at a table and talk directly.