Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obama's misread of Israel - press on Gilo makes Israelis rally behind Netanyahu

(HERB KEINON- Jpost).US President Barack Obama is an extremely intelligent man surrounded by equally intelligent advisers, many of whom have years of experience dealing with the Middle East. His continued misreading and misunderstanding of the Israeli public is, therefore, somewhat baffling.

This misread was evident again in the past few days by the US objection to the Jerusalem Municipal Planning Committee's approval of a plan to build some 900 new units in Gilo - not in a far-flung settlement overlooking Nablus, nor even in one of the settlement blocs like Gush Etzion, nor even a Jewish complex in one of the Arab neighborhoods of the capital, but in Gilo, one of the large new neighborhoods built in the city following the Six Day War. If Israel cannot build in Gilo without US approval, than it cannot build in Ramot Eshkol, French Hill, Ramot, Neveh Yaakov, Pisgat Ze'ev, East Talpiot or Har Homa.

Truth be told, this is not the first indication of US policy on this matter. Former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice seemed to be giving the new neighborhoods settlement status in 2007 when she opposed a new project in Har Homa.

However, the Obama team's call for a complete settlement halt also included a halt to new construction in east Jerusalem, something Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu refused to accept.

By continuing to press the issue, Obama - who recently showed nascent signs of wanting to engage the Israeli public out of an understanding that if you want to get Israel to make concessions, Israel will need to trust the US president - risks further alienating the Israeli public.

When Obama came to power in January, he apparently did so with two basic assumptions regarding Israel.

The first was that the Israeli public so cherishes its relationship with the US that it would not tolerate any daylight between Jerusalem and Washington, and that if its government was responsible for that daylight, then it would replace that government with another in order to preserve the special relationship with Washington.

The second assumption was that the Israeli public hated the settlements.

Based on those two assumptions, Obama immediately upon taking office pressed Israel hard on the settlement issue, calling for an unprecedented complete halt to all settlement construction, including inJerusalem.

The administration's working premise seemed to be that since the Israeli public was not enamored of the settlements in any event, if Obama pushed hard on that issue, the Israeli public would pressure its own government to give rather than risk a fissure with the Obama administration.

But the assumptions were mistaken. The Israeli public does not hate the settlements. Granted, it does not like the illegal settlement outposts, or what it sees as the extremists among the ideological settlements, but the public makes a distinction between those settlements outposts and those extremists and the large settlement blocs, such as Ma'aleh Adumim and Gush Etzion, which are well within the Israeli consensus. And the public certainly doesn't view the neighborhoods ofJerusalem, as the Europeans said in their statement, as "settlements."

Pressing a construction freeze in those areas was widely viewed by the public as an unreasonable demand, especially when it was not accompanied by any demands on the Arabs or Palestinians.

Rather than rallying around Obama, Israelis have - according to polls that shows Netanyahu's popularity rising - rallied around Netanyahu. And no issue will make them rally even further around the prime minister than Jerusalem.

Netanyahu understands this, which is why his office was behind a leak during the summer about Obama's objections to Jewish building at the Shepherd's Hotel site in Sheikh Jarrah, and was also likely behind the leak this week of US objections to the Gilo plan. In the summer, the objection to the Shepherd's Hotel plan made the administration's demands seem unreasonable to the Israeli public, as the Gilo objections have done now.