The humiliating treatment accorded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his recent visit to the White House and the 13-point diktat that he received from President Barack Obama has brought relations between the United States and Israel to a point of crisis.
But however this particular dispute between the two countries is played out in the days and weeks ahead, observers must ponder what will follow during the rest of the Obama presidency.
Though much of the focus of Obama’s foreign policy has seemed to be a fixation with making nice with rivals and enemies, it has also been accompanied by what appears to be a calculated decision to create some distance between the United States and Israel.
Indeed, just 15 months into the Obama presidency, the U.S.-Israel relationship seems to be as fractious as it has been in recent memory.
In his first months, Obama last year tried and failed to topple Netanyahu’s newly elected coalition by issuing a demand for a settlement freeze. But in an attempt to smooth things over with his country’s only ally, Netanyahu formally accepted the principle of a two-state solution and agreed to stop building in the West Bank, though not in Jerusalem.
But when an ill-timed announcement of a housing project in east Jerusalem coincided with the visit to Israel of Vice President Joe Biden last month, Obama pounced again. The incident was portrayed as a full-blown insult to the U.S. that required the stiffest condemnation.
Indeed, the plan to build apartments for Jews in an existing Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem was greeted by a more spirited U.S. denunciation than Obama had mustered for Iran’s stolen election or the brutal repression of protesters in the streets of Tehran.
As the dispute between the two countries entered its third week, Obama’s anger at Israel and his determination to force Netanyahu to give in on the question of building in the eastern sector of Israel’s capital were apparently unabated.
In spite of precedents, Obama has managed to go where no U.S. president has gone before. For all of the problems created by all of his predecessors about settlements in the West Bank, no previous U.S. leader has ever chosen to draw a line in the sand about the Jewish presence in Jerusalem.
It is true that the United States never recognized Israel’s annexation of the eastern sector of the city after Jerusalem’s unification in 1967. In fact, it has never even recognized western Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
But the new Jewish neighborhoods that sprang up along the northern, eastern and southern outskirts of the city as well as those in the Old City were never a source of contention even during the presidencies of Carter or the elder Bush.
Indeed, the notion that places such as Ramat Eshkol, Pisgat Zeev, Gilo or even Ramat Shlomo (the site of the “insult” to Biden) are considered “settlements” by the United States and thus no different from the most remote hilltop outpost deep in the West Bank is something that has come as a complete surprise to most Israelis, let alone American supporters of Israel.
Washington’s decision to jump on the Biden incident as an excuse to demand that the freeze be extended to eastern Jerusalem signals that Obama clearly believes that — just like the big settlements of Ariel and Ma’ale Adumim — the homes of the approximately 200,000 Jews who live in eastern Jerusalem are also on the table.
It is far from clear what Obama thinks he can achieve with these demands.
Despite Netanyahu’s concessions on the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority is still refusing to negotiate directly with Israel. Indeed, the so-called “proximity talks” that Obama was in such a lather to revive with further Israeli concessions showed little promise.
The circumstances that have always prevented the P.A. from signing any agreement that legitimized a Jewish state within any borders have not changed. Even more to the point, since Obama has followed every Israeli concession with demands for more, why should Mahmoud Abbas negotiate since his failure to do so is inevitably rewarded with more pressure on Israel?
But despite that fact that his diplomatic offensive has virtually no chance of success, Obama has still done something that will permanently alter Middle Eastern diplomacy.
By treating the Jewish presence in east Jerusalem as a vast illegal settlement, the continued growth of which is an alleged impediment to peace, Obama has made it impossible for any Arab leader to ever accept Israel’s possession of this part of the city.
This not only makes the already near-impossible task of forging peace that much harder, but it is a crushing blow to decades of Israeli and American Jewish efforts to foster international recognition of a unified Jerusalem.
This year at their Passover seders, some Americans no doubt asked themselves, “Why is this president different from all other presidents?”
The answer is that Obama has now established opposition to Israel’s hold on its capital as a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy in a way that is completely new as well as dangerous.
Those wondering whether or not this development ought to cause them to re-evaluate their political loyalties might want to remember the closing refrain of seders down through the centuries: “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine and a contributor to its blog at www.commentarymagazine.com.