The U.S.-Israel crisis: This time, it’s serious

The U.S.-Israel crisis: This time, it’s serious

WASHINGTON — Last summer, when the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations was getting off to what appeared to be a rocky start, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was at pains — twice — to deny that he had been “summoned” to the State Department for a dressing down.
One such “meeting” was actually a friendly phone call, he said, and the other was a routine getting-to-know-you meeting. The distinction was key, he told journalists: When the State Department actually “summons” an envoy, “That’s serious.”
Welcome to the serious zone: Oren’s spokesman, Jonathan Peled, confirmed to JTA that the ambassador indeed had been “summoned” for a meeting last Friday with James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state. The summons came as the controversy engendered by Israel’s announcement of new construction in eastern Jerusalem during last week’s visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden showed no sign of abating.
“It wasn’t a meeting,” Oren told the Washington Jewish Week in an interview at a fund-raiser for a Washington-area school on Sunday night. “It was a summoning. I was told it was the first time that any ambassador had been summoned at that level.”
Oren said he is “working hard to avert an escalation. We’re working very hard to get back to what we need to do to make peace and stop Iran from making the bomb. We have apologized publicly and privately profusely.”
Israeli media reported Monday that in a conference call Saturday night with other Israeli diplomats, Oren — a New Jersey-born historian who has gone out of his way to talk up the U.S.-Israel relationship — said that ties were at a 35-year nadir. The previous low presumably was the Ford administration’s threat to “reassess” the relationship with Israel because of perceived Israeli reluctance to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace with Egypt.
The controversy erupted last week with what both sides agreed was a humiliation for the U.S. vice president, considered to be Netanyahu’s best friend in the Obama administration. Biden had come to allay Israeli concerns that Obama’s outreach to Muslims would come at Israel’s expense; just as he was getting ready to meet with Palestinian officials as part of the administration’s push to restart peace talks, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, part of disputed eastern Jerusalem.
Biden, furious, condemned the announcement — several times — but went ahead with a speech that affirmed the unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the timing and said he would probe how the announcement was made without his knowledge.
“There was a regrettable incident, that was done in all innocence and was hurtful, and which certainly should not have occurred,” Netanyahu said in his statement. “We appointed a team of directors-general to examine the chain of events and to ensure procedures that will prevent such occurrences in the future.”
Israeli officials and leaders of pro-Israel organizations are asking the Obama administration to dial down the tension, in tones ranging from the pleading to the berating.
“The Obama administration’s recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern,” the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement Sunday night, a rare direct broadside from an organization that generally operates behind the scenes. “AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state.”
The statement comes just a week before the start of AIPAC’s annual policy conference, widely seen as the most important pro-Israel event in Washington.
Like an array of other Jewish groups, AIPAC wants the matter kept quiet: “We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments.”
That echoed a plea Sunday morning from Netanyahu, to his Cabinet as much as to the Obama administration.
“I suggest that we not get carried away — and that we calm down,” he said. “We know how to deal with these situations — with equanimity, responsibly and seriously.”
But Obama administration officials, who accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that he had been blindsided by the announcement of new housing units for Jews in eastern Jerusalem, nonetheless were not ready to let the matter go.
In addition to Friday’s summons of Oren, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described a conversation the same day between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in exceptionally blunt terms. Clinton objected to the announcement “not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance,” Crowley said.
The Netanyahu-Clinton phone call reportedly lasted 45 minutes — and by most accounts sounded less like the “conversation” Oren says he had with Steinberg and more like a lecture.
Haaretz reported that Clinton, who is scheduled to speak at the AIPAC conference next week, wants three demands met beyond Netanyahu’s offer to check into how the announcement was made. In order to defuse the U.S.-Israel tensions, Clinton wants Israel to reverse the decision to add housing in eastern Jerusalem, make a substantive gesture to the Palestinians, such as a prisoner release, and agree to peace talks that encompass not only borders but final-status issues such as refugees and Jerusalem.
On Monday, Netanyahu told a Likud Party meeting that construction in Jerusalem would not stop. However, his defense minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said more needed to be done to assuage the Americans. Barak hinted at a Labor Party meeting that failure to do so could lead his party to withdraw from the government. “Peace talks are a first priority for Israel and for the entire region,” Haaretz quoted Barak as saying. “The political process is in the interest of the state and it is a subject in which the Labor party believes. It is one of the things that anchors us in the government and drives us to work within it.”
In the past, the pro-Israel community has been able to rally push back against demands like those of Clinton. The Ford administration backed down from its threat of “reassessment” in 1975 after AIPAC garnered more than 70 signatures from the Senate signaling that Congress would override any presidential attempt to cut back funds. That was the lobby’s first signal victory, accruing to it the “don’t mess with us” reputation it maintains until now.
Now, however, the president can count on a Democratic Congress less likely to break ranks with him in a Washington that has become much more partisan. Notably, Republicans — including Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives — have sided with Israel in the matter, but as of Monday the only Democrat to speak out for Israel has been Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), perhaps the most-pro-Israel stalwart in her caucus. Other more powerful pro-Israel reliables — like Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee — have been silent.
It’s unclear, however, what impact they would have if they did speak out. Unlike President Ford in 1975 or President George H.W. Bush in 1991, Obama is not threatening any cut in assistance to Israel, rendering Congress’ “purse strings” powers superfluous. By holding back on such threats, the Obama administration can ignore Congress and continue to reproach Israel.