GLUM Israelis likened the event to thieves entering in the night. When Binyamin Netanyahu and his aides met Barack Obama in the White House on March 23rd, the president forbade any media coverage—not even a quick photograph—in the Oval Office. The encounter with Israel’s prime minister did not seem to lead to the jovial reconciliation that politicians on both sides, after a fortnight of angry mud-slinging between Washington and Jerusalem, had hoped for.
The format was as odd as the extreme confidentiality. After the two leaders had sat alone for an hour-and-a-half, Mr Netanyahu closeted himself to “consult“ his advisers, before returning for another half-hour discussion. Did Mr Obama, riding high after his historic victory over health care, choose to confront the silver-tongued Israeli prime minister with an unequivocal challenge to lay out his policy on peace with the Palestinians—and to back down over the controversial issue of building Jewish houses in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their would-be state?
The need for such clarity was illustrated by yet another Israeli building project in East Jerusalem, which was publicised just hours before the White House meeting. In Israel there was speculation that someone had issued news of this untimely project, long in the works, in order, once again, to “trip up Bibi“, as the prime minister is known, when he was about to meet the president of Israel’s most vital ally.
The crisis in American-Israeli relations flared up a fortnight ago when, just as the vice-president, Joe Biden, was visiting Jerusalem, it was announced that 1,600 Jewish homes would be built in East Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu apologised fulsomely for the bad timing but refused to rescind the decision. The suburb in question, Ramat Shlomo, is one of several all-Jewish ones built since 1967 in East Jerusalem, where 250,000 Israeli Jews now live.
The latest scheme is much smaller—just 20 units—but a lot more incendiary. Whereas Ramat Shlomo is built on a rocky outcrop on the northern rim of the Israeli-delineated municipality, the new scheme involves installing a score of Jewish settler families in a converted hotel in the densely populated all-Arab suburb of Sheikh Jarrah, close to the Old City.
Mr Netanyahu contends that his building policy in Jerusalem is no different from that of all his predecessors since 1967, when Israeli forces conquered the entire city. “The Jewish people were building in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago,“ he told 7,000-odd delegates to the annual conference of the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobby, in Washington on March 22nd. “And the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.“ He complains privately that Mr Obama is needlessly picking on him.
But American officials complain privately that Mr Netanyahu is dissembling. They point out that two of his predecessors, Ehud Barak (1999-2001) and Ehud Olmert (2006-09), negotiated with the Palestinians over a peace plan for Jerusalem proposed by President Bill Clinton, who suggested sharing out the city’s sovereignty by districts: Jewish-inhabited ones would go to Israel, Arab-inhabited ones to Palestine. The “holy basin“ in the middle, including religious shrines, would fall under an international or divine protectorate.
Mr Obama now insists that Jerusalem, along with the other core issues of the conflict, such as the question of redrawing borders and the return of refugees demanded by the Palestinians, should be tackled in the “proximity talks“ he is trying to launch between Israelis and Palestinians. He hopes they may lead to a resumption of long-stalled direct negotiations. Mr Obama also wants a series of “confidence-building steps“ to bring the Palestinians back to the table. These include a release of Palestinian prisoners and the dismantling of Israeli military road-blocks that frustrate Palestinians’ lives and commerce on the West Bank. Mr Netanyahu says he cannot meet these demands because his allies on the nationalist and religious end of his ruling coalition would rebel if he did.
But Mr Obama’s team may no longer be willing to accept that as a reason. Some observers in Washington felt in his speech to AIPAC Mr Netanyahu gave unduly short shrift to Mr Obama and ignored the president’s insistence that fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians should go straight to the big issues, such as adjusting borders. “Of course the United States can help the parties solve their problems,“ said the prime minister. “But it cannot solve the problems for the parties. Peace cannot be imposed from the outside.“
It was even suggested that Mr Netanyahu’s speech may have been written before Mr Obama’s health-care triumph in the House of Representatives the night before. It was said that people in the White House had been brooding with resentment over Mr Netanyahu’s ill-disguised pleasure when Mr Obama’s political fortunes seemed earlier to be sliding.
Mr Netanyahu has indeed had a tough time keeping his coalition together. Just before he left for Washington, he and his extreme nationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, both secular Jews, persuaded a cabinet majority to accept ultra-Orthodox demands for a new hospital emergency-room to be moved, at high cost, because its previously planned site might contain ancient Jewish graves. An ultra-Orthodox party that is an important coalition partner and holds the health ministry threatened to secede unless this was done.
A public outcry ensued. Already in Washington, Mr Netanyahu had to backtrack by setting up a committee to “reconsider“ the cabinet decision. But for now, he would rather compromise with his Orthodox partners than consider the prospect, favoured by Mr Obama’s team, of dumping them (and, by the by, Mr Lieberman’s lot) and co-opting the more pragmatic Kadima party, under Tzipi Livni. After winning most seats in a general election a year ago, Ms Livni refused to join a coalition with Mr Netanyahu, partly because he would not negotiate over Jerusalem.
As if Mr Netanyahu had not been discomfited enough by his apparent dressing down from Mr Obama, he faced yet another embarrassment when Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, publicly denounced Israel for forging 12 British citizens’ passports that were used in January in the assassination of a senior Hamas man in a hotel in Dubai. An Israeli diplomat in London, thought to be a member of Mossad, the external intelligence service, was asked to leave the country.
Palestinians have gleefully watched two of Israel’s main allies rebuking it. They have rejoiced, too, as the peacemaking Quartet (the United States, the European Union, Russia and the UN) roundly condemned Israel’s building plans in East Jerusalem. Earlier the EU’s Court of Justice had said that Israeli products made in West Bank settlements should not be given EU preferential trade tariffs.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, echoed Mr Obama’s demands for a settlement freeze in East Jerusalem, but he is wary of once again being left high and dry if the Americans were to buckle over the issue, as they have done before. Moreover, he is nervous that the violence between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces, which has increased in the past few weeks, may spin out of control. Four Palestinians have recently been shot dead in the West Bank. So far Palestinian and Israeli forces have co-operated rather effectively to contain the unrest. Even so, Palestinian leaders are worried that a wider intifada (uprising) may erupt, making it even harder to get talks going again.
Some Palestinians might settle for an Israeli assurance that settlement-building in East Jerusalem would cease while talks are under way, along with an Israeli promise to negotiate borders and security immediately. But Mr Abbas is unlikely to risk re-embarking on talks without the 22-country Arab League’s endorsement. The league’s impending summit is to take place in Libya, whose leader, Muammar Qaddafi, is keen for Mr Abbas’s Islamist rival, Hamas, to attend—a sure recipe for kiboshing a compromise plan to resume talks.
(Mar 25th 2010 | JERUSALEM AND WASHINGTON, DC | From The Economist print edition)