The U.S. quarrel with Israel

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

PRESIDENT OBAMA'S Middle East diplomacy failed in his first year in part because he chose to engage in an unnecessary and unwinnable public confrontation with Israel over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Over the past six months Mr. Obama's envoys gingerly retreated from that fight and worked to build better relations with the government of Binyamin Netanyahu. Last week the administration finally managed to strike a deal for the launching of indirect Israeli-Palestinian talks. So it has been startling -- and a little puzzling -- to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state.

True, this U.S.-Israel crisis began with a provocation from Jerusalem: the announcement by the Interior Ministry of plans for 1,600 more Jewish homes beyond Israel's 1967 border. Vice President Biden, who was visiting when the news broke, was embarrassed; he quickly responded with a statement of condemnation. He then appeared to accept the public apology of Mr. Netanyahu, who said he, too, had been surprised by the announcement.

The dispute's dramatic escalation since then seems to have come at the direct impetus of Mr. Obama. Officials said he outlined points for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to make in a searing, 45-minute phone call to Mr. Netanyahu on Friday. On Sunday senior Obama adviser David Axelrod heaped on more vitriol, saying in a television appearance that the settlement announcement had been an "affront" and an "insult" that had "undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region."

Mr. Obama and his advisers appear determined to prove that they will not be pushed around by Israel. The public scoldings also send a message to Palestinian and Arab leaders who have been demanding assurances that the United States will use its leverage in the new peace negotiations. And the administration hopes to extract immediate concessions from Mr. Netanyahu: It has demanded that he reverse the Jerusalem settlement decision, release Palestinian prisoners, agree to cover sensitive "final status" issues in the indirect talks and investigate the errant settlement announcement.

Mr. Netanyahu already has conceded the last point and may give way on others; he is facing harsh domestic criticism. But Mr. Obama risks repeating his previous error. American chastising of Israel invariably prompts still harsher rhetoric, and elevated demands, from Palestinian and other Arab leaders. Rather than join peace talks, Palestinians will now wait to see what unilateral Israeli steps Washington forces. Mr. Netanyahu already has made a couple of concessions in the past year, including declaring a partial moratorium on settlements. But on the question of Jerusalem, he is likely to dig in his heels -- as would any other Israeli government. If the White House insists on a reversal of the settlement decision, or allows Palestinians to do so, it might land in the same corner from which it just extricated itself.

A larger question concerns Mr. Obama's quickness to bludgeon the Israeli government. He is not the first president to do so; in fact, he is not even the first to be hard on Mr. Netanyahu. But tough tactics don't always work: Last year Israelis rallied behind Mr. Netanyahu, while Mr. Obama's poll ratings in Israel plunged to the single digits. The president is perceived by many Israelis as making unprecedented demands on their government while overlooking the intransigence of Palestinian and Arab leaders. If this episode reinforces that image, Mr. Obama will accomplish the opposite of what he intends.

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