Everything is narrative. And the present “responsible” narrative, we are told, comes from President Obama. It’s too bad he knows very little about the intrinsic history of the dispute or about its present contours, which, after all, he--in his arrogance, vanity, and suave--has done much to make both sides more rigid rather than more amenable to compromise. (Actually it’s at least three sides if you count Hamas-controlled Gaza, which the president blithely ignores ... and more if you count the so-called “Palestinians-in-exile” and the Arab interlopers, like the Saudis, worthy of an executive genuflection, who agitate but don’t really much care. OK, this may be harsh. They do care, maybe a fig or two.)
There is some confusion in the Obama administration about its attitude toward Israel. Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem over the last few days actually must have focused all participants and observers on the ambiguities of the relationship. Herb Keinon, the very astute observer of U.S.-Israel relations at the Jerusalem Post, published an article today titled “Veep shows Israel some love.” And in a subhead: “In Jerusalem, Biden reiterates Washington’s ‘absolute, total unvarnished commitment to Israel’s security.’” And this was not all. Biden has his own longtime and almost maternally breastfed affections for Israel. Before meeting with the gaga president of Israel, he observed that the Jewish state “captured my heart. I make no bones about it. That does not mean I do not understand and have a great empathy for the circumstances of the Palestinians, but Israel captured heart and my imagination.”
Then the prime minister gave the vice president a certificate attesting to the fact that a ring of trees had been planted by the Jewish National Fund--for those of you who remember the blue collection box (or, as it was called, the pushke)--in memory of Biden’s mother, Catherine Eugenia Jean Finnegan Biden, who passed on at 92 in January. Biden took the certificate and said, “My love for your country was watered by this Irish lady, who was proudest of me when I was with and for the security of Israel.” This Irish lady, believe me, did not attend the Reverend John Hagee’s church.
Netanyahu’s colleagues did not reciprocate Biden’s gesture at all. The fact is that Bibi is continually undermined by several members of his cabinet and by the members of parliament who belong to their political parties. (Alas, the Israeli parliamentary system is not disciplined parliamentarianism at all.) My guess is that Netanyahu was as surprised as Biden when the interior ministry announced that it had approved construction for 1,600 apartments in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo, which already houses 18,000 (mostly) ultra-orthodox Jews. But I do not believe that Interior Minister Eli Yishai--leader of Shas, the benighted ultra-orthodox party of many Sephardic Jews--was at all surprised as he claimed in a craftily wrought “apology.”
That said, I believe that the great rabbi in the skies has not instructed Israel to force history to stand still. So let me be direct: The Palestinians have only themselves to blame on Jerusalem, as on other disputed matters. In 2000 and 2001, then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak agreed to a peace that included handing over the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem for the Palestinian capital. (Ehud Olmert made the same offer in 2008). The Arabs always believed that time was on their side, that their reluctance to negotiate and then their reluctance to sign would somehow improve their position. But time does not stand still, and it certainly no longer stands still for the Jews. Having waited in exile for 2,000 years, having struggled over nearly a century for a Jewish commonwealth, have tried to engage its neighbors in parley for more than half a century, the Jewish polity will no longer tarry, and it is justified in not tarrying.
Indeed, the American quick fix of “indirect” negotiations (with poor self-deluded George Mitchell shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah) plays into the Palestinian historic habit of eluding reality. But, if they will not sit with the Israelis, how can they possibly make peace with the Israelis? So what Obama’s affinity for the Palestinian sensibility has forced is a dangerous historic retreat that puts American sanction and blessings on fantasy. I actually believe that Netanyahu should have rejected this foolish formula. It is, however, an earnest representation of his commitment to move on with whatever “peace process” there is ... and there will be a peace process. It will end in nothing.
Now, back to Biden. Given that he surely understands this Israeli narrative and doubtless sympathizes with it as well, why did he use the word “condemn” about the announcement of the far-into-the future East Jerusalem housing? After all, if a peace agreement is struck beforehand, the 1,600 units can easily be cancelled. In fact, as Jennifer Rubin aptly points out today at Commentary, “condemn” is a rather shrill word in the affairs of state and is not used casually by the Obami. Mrs. Clinton, no longer a supplicant for Jewish votes and money, has also rushed to the strident in speaking about and to Israel.
I conclude that this is actually administration policy. There is curious confirmation illuminating this in a column by Roger Cohen which has nothing to do with Israel. His piece fixes on Obama’s affinities for cultures and polities that had not been central in the minds of previous American presidents. So this president has actually played rough with our traditional allies and ideological companions. He is, as I have said a few times, a third worlder. We will see how America will do with our true friends sidelined. Perhaps the Brits will console themselves that Obama returned the bust of Winston Churchill that they lent to the White House after 9/11.
Anyway, it is increasingly clear that the president feels more connection to the Palestinians specifically and the Arabs generally than he does to the Israelis (and just possibly more connection to Muslims than to Jews, to Islam than to Judaism and Jewishness.)
So he is stuck with the allies he has chosen. In the long run, it will not matter. The Palestinians will not play even the minimal accommodating role in peace-seeking that Obama has assigned them. There are relentless facts about Palestine that even the president’s disregard for Jewish sensibility and for Israel’s security will not be able to alter.
I can't understand any pragmatic justification for the announcement nor the case for why it isn't an instance of diplomatic and political incompetence. In this case, Peretz's post is unpersuasive and attenuated. The cost of alienating Israel's closest and most urgently necessary ally outweighs any benefits accruing from this uneccssarily provocative and badly mistimed act.
Retreating and resorting to narrative--something Peretz condemns, as narrative encroaches on history--and overarching assignments of blame, even if correct, cannot explain away or justify the sheer incompetence of the announcement.
Jonathan Tobin in Contentions on March 10, 2010 (as slightly edited by me):
...However, Israel’s is right to build homes in its own capital. Netanyahu rightly opposed extending the freeze on building in the West Bank to Jerusalem. President Obama’s criticisms of Jewish building there were met with almost universal opposition on the part of Israelis, a factor that helped solidify Netanyahu’s popularity and the stability of his coalition.
But the argument is made that if Israelis expect the world to support their opposition to the Palestinians’ assertion of a so-called “right of return” to parts of the country they fled in 1948, Jews cannot at the same time claim their own right to return to property that was lost to the Arabs even in Jerusalem. Thus, according to this reasoning, the building of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem or even the reassertion of control over existing buildings that were Jewish property in 1948 across the Green Line is illegitimate and hypocritical as well as an obstacle to creating a Palestinian state with parts of Jerusalem as its capital.
The problem here is that while Arabs and their Jewish supporters assume that keeping all Jews out of East Jerusalem is a prerequisite of Palestinian independence, no one questions the right of Israeli Arabs to live in any part of Jerusalem, including the sections that were under Israeli control from 1949 to 1967.
Thus, the hypocrisy is not on the part of Israel but rather its critics. So long as Arabs are free to buy and/or build in West Jerusalem, banning Jews from doing the same in the eastern part of the city that was illegally occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 is discriminatory. And even if a peace deal were ever adopted in which parts of the city were given to a Palestinian state, why would the presence of Jews there prevent such a pact, since no responsible person would expect such an agreement to also specify the eviction of Arabs from Israel?
Moreover, the idea that it is a form of colonialism for Israelis to have the chutzpah to attempt to live in parts of Jerusalem is not only wrong-headed; it is based on a historical mistake that East Jerusalem has always been off-limits to Jews. There has been a Jewish majority in Jerusalem since the mid-19th century. These areas are seeped in both ancient and modern Jewish history. Indeed, even Mackey’s own post included the information that the most controversial building site, the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, was “a Jewish enclave” until 1948. The only real tradition here is the Times’s misreporting of the situation, as well as the Arab campaign to delegitimize the Jewish presence in the city.