Subtlety, Mr. Obama, Doesn't Work

Gershom Gorenberg on Washington's tepid rebuke of Israeli settlement expansion.

"Counterproductive." That's the adjective that National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor used to describe the Israeli government's first reprisal for the U.N. vote on Palestine: announcing that Israel was moving ahead on plans for a neighborhood linking Jerusalem and the settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, and authorizing 3,000 new homes for Israelis beyond the Green Line. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, choosing her words as carefully, said the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his senior cabinet forum had "set back the cause of a negotiated peace."

Washington is a long way from Israel, culturally even more than physically. In the polite diplomatic tones of Washington, these statements were meant as harsh censure. But the Obama administration needs to know that something got seriously lost in transmission. Here on the east edge of the Mediterranean, the message was that President Obama was practically campaigning for Netanyahu's reelection.

Harsh censure makes sense. Besides opposing settlement in general, the United States rightly objects to developing the E-1 area between Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim. Construction there will create a wall of Israeli settlement virtually cutting the West Bank in two.

So why doesn't the administration's intent come across? First, because polite diplomatic understatement is not a language widely spoken in Israel. Second, saying that Netanyahu is making it harder to achieve a two-state solution is not a terribly sharp criticism. That's what he wants to do, and the Israeli electorate knows it.

Third, American administrations have been rebuking Israel with similar understatement since the first cabinet approval of a settlement in the West Bank in September 1967. Back then, a State Department spokesman said the move was "inconsistent with the Israeli position as we understand it." These words did not prevent establishment of that settlement, Kfar Etzion. The government project of settlement-building has continued ever since, and polite American objections have become background noise.

American opposition to settlement would matter only if an Israeli government felt that it was paying a direct cost in support from Washington, or an indirect cost in political support at home. Only rarely, though, has settlement caused enough tension between Washington and Jerusalem to become politically significant in Israel. The clearest example was when the first President Bush linked loan guarantees to a settlement freeze and turned relations with the U.S. into a major campaign issue in Israel's 1992 election.

As measured by actions, American policy has otherwise been acquiescence. The lesson to Israelis—politicians and voters—is that American objections are not to be taken very seriously.

In the Israeli media, one explanation of the U.S. reaction to the latest announcement was that Washington is actually relieved. Before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas carried through with his request for observer-state status at the United Nations, Israeli politicians had threatened stronger retribution. Things could have been worse.

If that was the administration's reasoning, it was doubly flawed. Further retribution came quickly. By yesterday, Netanyahu and his finance minister decided that Israel would withhold funds it has collected as taxes on behalf of the PA—a step that will prevent Abbas from paying salaries and cause economic havoc in the West Bank.

Meanwhile, the Israeli public saw Netanyahu proving, once again, that the Israeli tail can wag the American dog. In the last four years, Obama has quietly swallowed both defiance of his policy and, more recently, Netanyahu's blatant support for Mitt Romney. In the confrontation at the United Nations, Obama followed Israel's lead in opposing the resolution on Palestine—even though the U.N. decision essentially ratified the American goal of a two-state solution based on the 1967 boundaries, even though Abbas brought the entire Arab and Islamic world to affirm that goal.

And immediately afterward, Netanyahu acted on E-1, and Obama's spokespeople responded with the usual pale words. The ambassador wasn't called home for consultation; no American official suggested on or off the record that the administration might need to reassess its handling of decisions in international forums on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; no one in Washington thought to mention how much money Israel is spending on settlements.

Yesterday Dani Dayan, head of the Council of Settlements, was interviewed on Israel Radio. Dayan was in Washington, attending the Saban Forum. What he was hearing, he said, was that "the Israeli left criticizes Netanyahu much more sharply than the Americans do."

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Whatever administration officials actually intend, this is the way Israeli voters are hearing them: Bibi is still king in Washington, and pays no price for intransigence. Less than two months before the Israeli election, this is indeed counterproductive.