Assessing the alarmingly tense relationship at the moment between Washington and Jerusalem, I’m reminded of one of my favorite Chelm stories.
It’s the one about the man walking down the street one night when he approaches his friend, who is positioned under a bright street lamp and searching for something on the ground.
"What did you lose?" he asks. "Can I help?"
"Thanks," his friend says, "I’ve lost my good watch."
"Where do you think you lost it?"
"Across the street, and way over there," his friend says, pointing far off into the distance.
"Then why are you looking here?" the man asks.
"Oh," his friend says, "because the light’s much better."
The current U.S.-Israel standoff is no joke. Far from it. But I can’t help thinking that President Barack Obama, in his desperate search for a way out of the Israeli-Palestinian standoff, is looking deliberately in the wrong places, picking on Israel – not because it makes sense – but because he can. And because it’s more expedient than pressuring the Palestinians and upsetting the oil-rich Arab nations.
The president is no fool, and I believe he wants to broker a peace deal in the Mideast. But based on his actions in attempting to jumpstart negotiations since taking office, he has shown a disturbing lack of appreciation of the complexities of the issue. And in his haste he has weakened his most vital democratic ally in the region and strengthened those most resistant to Western values, compromise, stability and peace.
Nobody is blameless here. While the administration has taken on the role of bully rather than honest broker, the Netanyahu government can be criticized for, at best, incompetence. It embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during his trip to Israel with the ill-timed announcement of increased housing in Ramat Shlomo in east Jerusalem, which set off this most serious crisis in U.S.-Israel relations in many years.
At worst, Netanyahu could be accused of a dangerous degree of chutzpah in discounting or dismissing consistent calls for months from Washington – Israel’s greatest and virtually only benefactor and supporter – to dismantle illegal settlements and bolster the shaky government of Mahmoud Abbas.
But Obama is guilty of chutzpah himself in thinking his very public pressure on, and now humiliation of, Netanyahu can force a change of government in Israel that would emerge more centrist and, presumably, more accommodating of the Palestinians.
As we are already seeing, though, such unseemly efforts to weaken or unseat the democratically elected leader of another government will only backfire, moving Israelis further to the right. And neither Kadima’s Tzipi Livni nor any other credible Israeli political leader would concede the centrality of Jerusalem prior to face-to-face, final-status negotiations with the Palestinians.
Lord knows there is enough misunderstanding, frustration, hurt, sense of betrayal and anger to go around between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel. But Obama has picked the wrong fight – twice – since taking office.
First he called for a "settlement freeze" that not only failed to define either complex term but did not distinguish between isolated West Bank outposts and major, heavily populated areas that everyone in the region recognized would remain part of Israel at the end of negotiations. This blunder set talks back for a year when the Palestinian Authority, which had never used settlements as an excuse not to negotiate, followed the president’s lead and refused to talk until all settlement activity ceased.
Netanyahu, under pressure, did put into place a 10-month freeze in the West Bank, a major compromise for him that at the time was heralded by Washington as worthy step. But that was four months ago.
Now, in another misguided step, Obama has pushed for an end to housing plans for east Jerusalem, seemingly unaware that Ramat Shlomo, the controversial center of the latest dispute, is set between the Jewish neighborhoods of French Hill and Ramot and would remain part of Israel according to every peace plan that has been discussed.
Even more disturbing than picking the wrong fights, Obama has picked on the wrong party in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Where is the condemnation – or even mention – of the Palestinian Authority in all of this mess for failure to endorse a two-state solution or acknowledge the right of a Jewish state to exist in the region, and for its praise of suicide bombers as "martyrs?"
Why should the Palestinian Authority engage in serious talks with Israel, leading to compromise – like giving up the dream of settling countless descendants of the 1948 refugees within Israel rather than a new Palestinian state – when Washington is applying all of the pressure on Jerusalem?
The rhetoric we heard from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the AIPAC conference, and that we hear from the president, is painstakingly symmetrical in its praise or criticism of Israel and the Palestinians. (And of course by "Palestinians" here I refer only to the PA, not the terrorist Hamas government in Gaza, which is another story, and critical to understanding why real peace in the region is such a distant dream for now.)
But there is little symmetry to speak of when discussing Israel and the PA. Israel is a democratic ally and vital strategic partner that has consistently been willing to make painful sacrifices for peace, and has made peace with Egypt and Jordan. The PA remains a group founded on and still connected to armed struggle, one that has carried out murderous attacks on innocent civilians, demonizes Israelis and Zionists and has refused every peace-making effort over the years.
What’s needed now is for Washington to step back and heed its own advice: for decades we heard, and agreed with, the message that peace will only come through direct negotiations between the parties themselves, when they are ready. That’s how peace was brokered between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan.
The status of Jerusalem will be on the table if and when the Palestinians and Israelis sit down to talk. As will all the other difficult issues. But for now, Obama has managed to give the Palestinians every reason and excuse not to negotiate directly, leaving the impression that Israel is intransigent and the Palestinians willing to compromise, when the very opposite is true.
As long as the president searches for peace like the man from Chelm, he’ll be looking in the dark.