So, it appears that the US Israel relationship is in tatters. Harsh words are being spoken between administration officials and the pressis placing Israel under pressure, making American Jews either very nervous or very angry. (And some, actually relieved).
There certainly is a lot of bluster going around. The Prime Minister is expressing remorse to the Obama administration, apologizing on one hand, but maintaining that the policy of building in Jerusalem will continue.
What are we to make of this "crisis in US Israel relations?"
This latest kerfuffle indicates that things are different these days, both in Washington and Jerusalem. While this would appear obvious, many of us in the center maintained for a long time, that with Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod in Obama's inner circle that the relationship between United States and Israel would continue the way that it always had. Nothing could be further from the truth. But not for the reasons that everybody thinks.
The White House is a very busy place these days. Congress appears to be out of control, Democrats are running scared, they continue to fight 2 wars, and, by the way, there are no jobs and the economy, while improving slowly, is at best in a "hidden" recovery.
So why is the administration focusing so much attention on negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians? Traditionally, US presidents don't pay attention to"peace process" until the 6th year of their term. This is because the situation is extraordinarily complicated, and after midterm elections in the 2nd term presidents generally feel that they can do complicated things.
But the Obama administration is all about taking on complicated things. Healthcare, jobs,education reform, and changing the way that prisoners are dealt with at Guantanamo Bay have all been high priorities for the president. It seems that after the Bush years, the administration felt that there was so much to do and no time to waste.
So fulfilling a campaign promise, the president sent George Mitchell to the Middle East and expected some progress.
What he found was 2 leaders with very tenuous domestic positions, both unable to move a process forward. For a year Israel indicated it was willing to enter direct negotiations with the Palestinians. The Palestinians on the other hand, wanted to dely those negotiations until receiving concessions from the Israeli side -- a price to come to the table. When the Israelis called their bluff, the Palestinians folded.
So what are we to make of Eli Yishai, the new hero of the Israeli right? Some claim that his pronouncement about building new homes in Jerusalem (East Jerusalem, Sheikh Jarrah, Ramat Shlomo) was designed to provoke the US administration. Others claim that the Israelis would never do such a thing and that the Netanyahu government is out of control. (This argument is also being played out regarding the assassination in Dubai -- why would the Israelis get caught even though none of them were actually apprehended? Etc. etc.)
In truth, it doesn't really matter whether Israel intended to offend the United States or not. What matters is that the impression going forward is that despite their protestations the gulf between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government is widening. This may be. We need to remind ourselves that the US Israel relationship goes beyond any particular prime minister or president. What appears to have changed is the calculus among US leaders that Israel now poses a strategic liability for America's needs in the Middle East with regard to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. No amount of partisan posturing will counter State Department and Defense Department's analysis if they conclude that progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace effort is a prerequisite for reducing threats to American soldiers and the war effort in the Middle East. And, they may be right.
What really worries me is the "linkage" between progress with the Palestinians and dealing with the question of Iran. I have heard from friends on the left that, at some level, those issues are connected. I think it's an obscene connection, but it's very hard for many people to separate out defending Israel from nuclear attack and seeing Israel as a recalcitrant party in the peace process.
Let's hope that our community organizations resist the urge to spin out of control. The world is not coming to an end, Israel has weathered these kinds of crises before, and perhaps this will be a wake-up call to the Israeli people that they do need to make a choice. They can continue to support governments, both left and right, that perpetuate the status quo or, as they did in 2005, they can embrace change. No one knows what that change is or how it should go. But Israel can no longer have it both ways. They need to decide what the best possible course of action is, deal with the political consequences and begin to move forward.
Ironically, this is what the Obama administration is doing regarding healthcare. Like it or not, they are taking a risk. Whatever they do, they will be ridiculed by a large part of the American people. From the right, whether they pass the House bill are not, they will be considered to be abject failures -- either "ramming a bill down the American people's throats", or failing to achieve their legislative goals with a large majority in both houses. From the left, while many will applaud the passage of the health care bill, there are still many who will be disappointed that it does not embrace the reforms that many wanted. Particularly on the issue of abortion.
And so the Netanyahu and Obama governments have something in common. For both it is time to take a serious domestic risk for the betterment of the country. Obama has already chosen his path, and, for better or worse, he will be remembered for it. Netanyahu also needs to make a choice -- or history will make it for him. Whatever he chooses, many Israelis will ridicule him. But, a true leader needs to step up in the face of ridicule.
I've left the issue of the Palestinians and their leadership side. To say that Abu Mazen is weak is an understatement. Unilateral action, as we saw with Gaza, is risky. But, for Israel, unilateral action that are seen as further concessions without a price is foolish. The problem is that now, Israel has to make concessions to the Americans and that is a huge game changer.
And so, Israel now needs to negotiate with the United States. And we have Eli Yishai to thank.
Finally, I want to say a word about another potential fallout from this terrible incident. While I was initially skeptical, I have come to embrace the rebuilding of the Hurva synagogue in the old city. When I lived there so many years ago, the memorial to the synagogue, the 51 foot arch above the Ramban synagogue, stood as a record of what had been in that place. When I heard that it was being rebuilt, I was concerned that the memory of the destruction of the Jewish quarter by the Jordanians would be forgotten. However, I now believe that it is more important to build a synagogue for the future and move beyond that terrible past. If that synagogue is held hostage to Palestinian demands, that would truly be an outrage of historic and biblical proportions. We cannot let that happen.