The diplomatic rift between Washington and Jerusalem reached a new low this week. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon’s snub by senior members of the Obama administration was made public here, a week after his U.S. visit, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to build more than 1,000 new units in Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Green Line, fully aware of the negative response it would receive in America and in the international community.
And it did, with the State Department calling the plans “incompatible with the pursuit of peace.” A European Union spokeswoman went further, asserting that the move “once again” calls into question Israel’s commitment “to a negotiated solution with the Palestinians.” She also warned that “the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend” on Jerusalem’s “engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution.”
Netanyahu responded by saying that Israel will “continue to build in our eternal capital,” adding: “I heard the claim that our building in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem makes peace more distant, but it is the criticism itself that makes peace more distant.” He said the criticism feeds the Palestinians’ false hopes and is “detached from reality.”
But it’s fair to ask just who is more detached from reality these days, the president of the U.S. and leader of the free world, or the leader of a small country almost totally dependent on American support? (It’s not so much the $3 billion a year in U.S. aid that counts as much as its support at the UN and in countless other ways that would be felt should the relationship continue to erode.)
Netanyahu and his defenders point out that despite the many concessions Jerusalem has made over the last few years regarding the peace process, from a 10-month settlement building freeze, to releasing dozens of Palestinian prisoners “with blood on their hands,” to agreeing to every proposed cease-fire this summer in the war with Hamas, the world continues to blame Israel for the lack of progress on the peace front. The prime minister has let it be known of late that he has, essentially, given up on repairing his relationship with Obama and is relying on Congress for support, especially on the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
But key Israeli leaders like Yair Lapid, the treasury minister, and Tzipi Livni, the minister of justice, oppose the Jerusalem expansion announcement, warning that Netanyahu is out of his league in taking on Obama.
As Lapid noted, “Whether we agree with this or not, we have to understand we cannot act this way to our most important ally.”
Make that “allies.” Lapid was referring to Washington, but the EU is vitally important to Israel as well, particularly in terms of economic trade.
Netanyahu’s bold, or brazen, move (depending on one’s politics) is based less on international diplomacy than internal politics, as is often the case in these flare-ups. The prime minister, sensing calls for a new election, is bolstering his political right and keeping his right-leaning coalition together. That may play well among the Israeli electorate — after all, Netanyahu has no real serious contender on the horizon. But it’s a dangerous and unnecessary provocation.
Jeopardizing Israel’s relationship with its most important allies to prove a point — that Jerusalem is not up for grabs — at a time when his country is increasingly isolated on the diplomatic level, when violent unrest in the capital since the summer has prompted some to call it “the silent intifada,” and when the Palestinians may well seek statehood through the UN, makes sense if the prime minister is ready to go it alone. But that’s not what his citizens want, and it would be a terrible mistake.