Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Netenyahu's Post-Election Offensive?

By Jackson Diehl
This comment was published on 10/11/2010 in The Washington Post

Has Binyamin Netanyahu launched an offensive against a politically-weakened Barack Obama?

You wouldn't have to be a member of the Obama administration's beleagured Middle East policy team to draw that conclusion.

Consider the chronology: As Netanyahu headed for the United States over last weekend for an address to a Jewish conference and meetings with senior administration officials, a Jerusalem planning committee published plans for the construction of some 1,200 new housing units in East Jerusalem -- including more than 1,000 in the controversial development of Har Homa, which has been the subject of repeated quarrels between Israel and the United States over the last decade.

Obama and the State Department, which publicly blew up at Netanyahu following a similar announcement last March, responded with relative restraint. The State Department said it was "disappointed;" Obama, responding to a question at a press conference in Jakarta, said "this kind of activity is never helpful." His words echoed almost exactly those of the Bush administration's secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, following the last Israeli announcement of an expansion of Har Homa.

That could have ended the matter. But Netanyahu -- who could have distanced himself from the provocative statements by pro-settlement bureaucrats -- instead quickly released a combative response. "Jerusalem is not a settlement -- Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," said a statement issued by his office. "Israel does not see any connection between the peace process and the building and planning policy in Jerusalem, which hasn't changed for 40 years."Later, in New York, Netanyahu took up the subject again, telling the Fox Business channel that the reaction to the settlement announcement "was overblown" and adding that it was "a minor issue that might be turned into a major issue. I think it's wrong." Meanwhile, the Israeli newspaper Haaretez was reporting yet another sensitive settlement announcement -- 800 new homes in the West Bank city of Ariel, which has been a major sticking point in past negotiations over the boundaries of a Palestinian state.

To be sure, it was Obama who first turned the settlement issue from a minor to a major one by publicly pressing for a complete and unprecedented Israeli freeze on settlement construction in both the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In September, he restored the issue to center stage by calling on Netanyahu to extend the partial moratorium he had imposed. When the Israeli refused, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suggested that Obama had forced his decision to suspend his peace talks with Netanyahu over the issue.

Yet this week it has been Netanyahu who has appeared to be on the offensive. "There is clearly a link" between settlements and peace talks, the State Department said in a common-sense response to his statement. "To suggest that this kind of announcement would not have an impact on the Palestinian incorrect."

The left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretez put it another way: "Two governments rule the state: one which tries to demonstrate willingness to operate in a framework that could possibly lead to peace talks and an agreement, and another one that acts to destroy this framework." Netanyahu, it pointed out, had promised following his dispute with Obama earlier this year that Israel would not surprise the administration with settlement announcements. "However, it turns out that Israel is unable or unwilling to abide by this agreement."

Israeli officials insist that Netanyahu is not looking to gain advantage over Obama. "This has nothing to do with the midterms," ambassador to Washington Michael Oren told me. He pointed out that the settlement plans were made before the U.S. elections were held, and that actual construction was months if not years in the future.

Others speculate that Netanyahu's show of defiance may be a prelude to concessions; he is due to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tomorrow to discuss the stalled peace process. Having announced and defended new construction, Netanyahu might be better positioned to declare a new moratorium without causing his right-wing coalition government to collapse.

Administration officials will have to hope that's the case. If Netanyahu does not follow his settlement surge with some tangible signals that he is serious about peace talks, the process will almost certainly expire. Obama, who has made Middle East diplomacy a centerpiece of his foreign policy, will look weak -- whether or not that was Netanyahu's intention.

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