Obama choosing not to turn Jerusalem building dispute into major crisis

Obama choosing not to turn Jerusalem building dispute into major crisis

Washington insiders largely unfazed by latest US-Israel spat, focusing on low-key Obama response rather than strident critiques from spokespeople

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Barack Obama in the White House, October 1, 2014 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with US President Barack Obama in the White House, October 1, 2014 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

WASHINGTON — Wednesday’s synchronized White House and State Department critique of building plans in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamatos neighborhood may have been strongly worded, but it does not mark a watershed moment in the US-Israel bilateral relationship — a relationship that can makes Hollywood headliners’ antics seem tame by comparison. For all the strong language in the Washington statements, according to insiders here, the administration is not interested in turning the issue of Israel’s plans to build some 2,600 units on the southeast Jerusalem hillside into a full-blown crisis.

Veteran Washington Mideast policy folks point to the fact that during his press availability with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Barack Obama did not even mention the word “settlements,” focusing instead on the warm points in the ties between the two states. Although he was aware of the building plans – White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed that the two talked about the topic behind closed doors – Obama chose to ignore the issue, and was, if anything, unusually amiable in his interaction with Netanyahu during the late morning event.

If Obama had wanted to make a major issue of the construction plans, it was well within his ability to discuss it during the press spot, when the cameras were rolling and Netanyahu would have been caught in the hot seat. Or he could have issued a statement in his own name. Or Secretary of State Kerry, who was also at the Wednesday meeting, could have done so. But they didn’t.

Instead, while the two leaders met, the State Department and the White House were coordinating strongly worded statements to be delivered by their spokespeople soon after the White House talks were completed. The decision was to strike a tone that contrasted starkly with the good-natured Obama-Netanyahu presser during the daily scheduled press briefings.

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki accused Israel of being two-faced in its policies by describing the building project as “contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians,” and later warned that it would “poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians, but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations; and call into question Israel’s ultimate commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”

She cautioned that not only would the building “draw condemnation from the international community,” but that it would also “distance Israel from even its closest allies” – a pointed remark seen as indicating that US-Israel relations hung in the balance.

Earnest repeated Psaki’s criticism almost verbatim, warning that “the step is contrary to Israel’s stated goal of negotiating a permanent status agreement with the Palestinians. And it would send a very troubling message if they were to proceed with tenders or construction in that area.”

The White House press secretary also presented a similar list of consequences, cautioning that “this development will only draw condemnation from the international community, distance Israel from even its closest allies, poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but also with the very Arab governments with which Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to build relations.”

But later in his briefing, Earnest described the content of the meeting between the two leaders that had concluded less than three hours earlier in terms that sounded very different. He said that Obama had “welcomed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s support” for ongoing US-led efforts against ISIS and that Washington’s willingness to defend Israel against efforts to isolate it diplomatically “is a testament to the strength and coordination of the relationship that exists between the United States and Israel.”

The flare-up over Givat Hamatos came after Peace Now released a report highlighting the approval of 2,610 new units in the neighborhood. According to Peace Now, the units were initially approved in 2012, but the municipality published notice of the latest approval stage one week ago, on September 24. In the ensuing week, no international response was recorded – in fact, the issue was only picked up by the international media following the Peace Now bulletin, released Wednesday shortly before the leaders’ meeting.

News of the discord did not merit much attention in US news media, which were primarily concerned with the discovery of an Ebola patient in Texas and the resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson. A video-recorded statement by an actual official – certainly Kerry and especially Obama — would have been much more likely to make national headlines, but no such statement existed. Both on- and off-the record, Washington insiders have said that the reason that the building announcement is not going to constitute a major crisis in US-Israel relations is because Obama does not want to make it one.

“If the president wanted to make an issue of it, he would have made a public remark,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Institute and veteran peace negotiator in the administrations of George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush.

Miller described the comments by Psaki and Earnest as “an empty gesture,” explaining that “neither Netanyahu nor Obama want to fight right now.”

Middle East policy, like the headlines themselves, remains focused on other, more pressing topics like the fight against ISIS and the nuclear talks with Iran. In addition, Miller suggested, the looming specter of US Congressional elections next month may also have had a dampening effect on any thought of issuing a stronger response.

The veteran analyst described the content of the Wednesday press briefings by Earnest and Psaki as “tough but strange.” He pointed to the fact that the US was obviously referring to itself in mentioning the potential impact of the building plans on Israel’s ties to its “closest allies,” but noted that it used the word “allies” in plural, maintaining a certain ambiguity. Miller also emphasized that the statements and official comments did not include any threatened actions on Washington’s part, and that the wording was all phrased in conditional tense.

On Thursday, pressed about her comments, Psaki again chose not to say that the US would take any concrete steps should the Givat Hamatos plan advance further toward the construction phase.

Miller warned that the strident condemnation coupled with what seemed to be a commitment to inaction “points to a gap between rhetoric and action, and into that gap falls American credibility.”

J Street Communications Director Alan Elsner agreed that the statements did not spark – or represent – a crisis. But he said, rather, that they were “part of a slow erosion that has been going on for a while.”

“Nobody wants there to be a crisis,” Elsner said. He argued, however, that rhetoric over Israeli construction across the Green Line was becoming increasingly forceful. Unlike Miller, Elsner asserted that while the criticism “starts rhetorically, after a while, when you run out of things to say that grab any attention or have any effect, then you start taking action.”

Elsner suggested that Obama’s decision to downplay public displays of friction between the two leaders stemmed from a desire to avoid “personalizing” the tensions. “This is not a question of whether two people like each other or get along with one another, but it becomes about that when it is in fact an issue of substance,” he said.

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