Israel Plays with Fire

A slap in the face to Biden on settlements, and now a new insult: Israel is playing a dangerous game with America. Leslie H. Gelb on how the dispute badly damages U.S. power.

AP Photo (2)

Israel’s right-wingers are congratulating themselves on their announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit last week. They think this stance, so unwelcome in Washington, this public and gratuitous insult to America’s negotiating position in the region, will compel President Obama to back down. They reinforced this notion Tuesday through Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaffirmation of the building plans—plus the insult of announcing yet additional building plans. They’re very wrong. Israel’s move was stupid, dangerous, and self-defeating. Worst of all, it seriously damaged Israeli-American relations and American power in the Middle East. Israeli leaders will not like the way their little power slap plays out. And it is they who should be figuring out how to make the necessary amends—and soon, before further contamination sets in.

Why on earth did the Israelis do what they did to Biden and reaffirm and double it on Tuesday? The only explanation I can think of is that they didn’t care.

Let me say up front that I am a strong supporter of Israel. To me, the United States’ tie with the Jewish nation is both emotional and strategic. Israel is a “strategic aircraft carrier” for America in a chaotic part of the world. Washington should never cast doubt on its commitment to Israel’s security. But Israel is not America’s sole vital interest in this treacherous terrain. If Israelis further complicate an already complicated Middle East, it won’t be good for the United States or for Israel.

Make no mistake, the insult badly damaged America’s power in the eyes of Muslim leaders and others around the world. To be sure, almost all of these leaders have an exaggerated and unrealistic notion of America’s control over Israel. Washington has much influence there, but not control. In any event, the working supposition is that if any nation can bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians, it is the United States because it alone has real influence over both parties. The Israeli slap in Biden’s face seriously undermined that perception of American influence, and thus America’s power. The disposition of Arab leaders and others to go along with American plans for future talks between Israelis and Palestinians will be seriously eroded. Others will be far less inclined to give Washington the benefit of the doubt. The result will be far more pressure by Muslim and European leaders for Washington to get tough and tougher with Israel. More toughness won’t work and will simply lead to more anger and frustration all around. The only ones who will benefit from this will be the political extremists and terrorists.

Israel’s slap in America’s face also will encourage the belief that Washington can be pushed around. In particular, vicious rumors are already afoot saying the Israelis wouldn’t have done this unless they believed Obama was weak and would back down. And if this was Israel’s assessment of the American president—and who knows Americans better than Israelis—why wouldn’t others seek to test Obama’s mettle as well?

Israelis who are rejoicing in their insult would do well to imagine Tehran’s reaction to their shenanigans. President Ahmadinejad and his cohorts must be thinking that if the Israelis can push Washington around, so can they. Who could be happier than the Revolutionary Guards to see America being treated as a limping power? And if Israeli leaders thought about what has just happened with any clarity, they would see that they have jeopardized America’s power in dealing with Iran’s evolving nuclear capability.

All this damage to American power in the region can be repaired over time—if there is no deterioration in America-Israeli relations as a result of the insult. But that is precisely the ultimate risk and danger caused by the foolish affront. Some Israeli leaders may, crazily, believe that their political position in the United States is so solid that they need not worry about Americans or an American administration becoming less supportive of Israel’s interests. But they should not be so sanguine. Americans, like others, are living in perilous times. Economic woes at home will lead to less patience with rebukes from abroad, especially from friends like Israel. It will be easier for Israel’s opponents in America to raise questions about U.S. military and economic aid to the Jewish state. Increasing numbers of U.S. policy experts who argue that Israel is more part of the problem than the solution for the United States in the Middle East will find more receptive audiences among frustrated Americans. This is no time for Israel’s leaders to test the depth and stability of America’s support for their country.

So why on earth did they do what they did to Biden and reaffirm and double it on Tuesday? The only explanation I can think of is that they didn’t care. They could not have been blind to the American reaction. They could not have seriously imagined that Obama, or any president of the United States, would not react sharply to Israel’s rebuke. Further, they had to know that the blowup would imperil resumption of the “proximity” talks, where the two parties would talk to each other not directly but through the United States. But the failure of these talks is exactly what these Israeli right-wingers desire. They wanted to scuttle the talks. To them, the talks could lead only to Israeli concessions on the West Bank and ultimately East Jerusalem itself. They wanted to nip this threat in infancy before it gained any momentum.

They even have a chance of succeeding in this self-defeating wish. The Obama administration and Israeli leaders are very angry at each other. Words are being tossed about publicly like “condemnation” (by the American side), and private mutterings are much more salacious. Washington is making stiff demands on Israel to rescind the building order for East Jerusalem and to declare all “core issues” on the negotiating table, including the status of Jerusalem. The Netanyahu government on Tuesday appeared to reject these demands, even after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton uttered some kind words about the enduring close relationship between the two countries. But the dominant fact today is the Israeli rejection of American requests for Israel to help get the negotiations with the Palestinians back on track.

Such tension and splits can please only enemies of the United States and Israel. Both sides have to move quickly to head off further escalation. First moves have to be up to Bibi. His government started the problem, and he has to begin ending it. At a minimum, he has to declare that the offending announcement is being withdrawn indefinitely. He does not have to make any specific concessions on East Jerusalem, but he at least has to issue a rescinding of the building order. On a much deeper level, Israelis have got to stare a basic reality in the face: For sure, Israel has the military might to fight to the death, but it is American power that gives them a realistic hope of survival as a Jewish state without having to fight to the death. For America’s part, the Obama administration has to stop issuing any more condemnations or further public criticisms. The point by now has been well made and its repetition would lead only to cascading nastiness. The White House should maintain silence while Israelis consider what their right-wingers have done to them. In this cooling-down environment, Israelis will surely come to the right decision—that the United States of America is far more important to their security than holding on to an announcement that says they will begin construction of almost 2,000 new housing units in the Israeli section of East Jerusalem.

Leslie H. Gelb, a former New York Times columnist and senior government official, is author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy (HarperCollins 2009), a book that shows how to think about and use power in the 21st century. He is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.