While Barack Obama had his hands full with his recent blitz to pass health care reform in the United States, Israel made a splash in the Middle East by announcing it would start to build again in the Jewish settlements.
This “announced” activity — not to be confused with the actual construction work on the ground — occurred while American Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel.
Relations between Israel and Palestine have been rather cool these past few months. Neither government is speaking to the other: At best, “proximity talks” were contemplated, where the American emissary George Mitchell would act as spokesperson for the other, each in the same building, but not face to face.
So, in this tense climate, to announce officially that construction work would take place in a section of East Jerusalem is far from diplomatic on the part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. No one expected him to be a peace dove, but to provoke an ally such as the United States in such a manner is of the utmost clumsiness. It is not surprising that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton deemed these statements “insulting.”
In Canada, Lawrence Cannon, a minister of foreign affairs, also condemned Israel’s plans.
“We firmly believe in two sovereign states, existing side by side in harmony. That’s the position that the Canadian government has put forth,” confided Mr. Cannon. The Canadian message is a clear rebuff of Israel. During the summer of 2006 conflict, the conservatives forcefully supported Israel against Lebanon.
These recent reactions were entirely fair and justified within a diplomatic scale.
Israel can recall all it wants that Jerusalem was, is and will always be the historic, national and religious capital of the Hebrew state; the fact remains that the very principle of building settlements in contested territories is more of a provocation than an effort to find a solution to a negotiated peace with its Palestinian neighbors. Israel is a catalyst for problems, and it seems unlikely that Israel will one day have sole authority over this city, where people of varied religious persuasions mix together, including a major Arab population. Its future administration points more towards a kind of international protectorate than an Israeli stranglehold.
Since the controversial announcement, Israel and the United States have multiplied the corrective statements in an attempt to reassure world public opinion that their bilateral relations are not poisoned. Prime Minister Netanyahu has proposed “measures of trust” to restart peace negotiations, such as freeing certain Palestinian prisoners. For that matter, he must have read the public opinion polls in his country, where the population absolutely does not support such initiatives. Israelis are clearly divided on that issue.
For his part, President Barack Obama reiterated that the United States has “a special relationship with Israel, which cannot change. However, even friends do not always agree.”
On substance, the dispute remains. Mr. Netanyahu does not seem to know what to do with the peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and believes he can count on the unflagging friendship of the Americans.
When President Obama is finished taking care of his domestic health care agenda, perhaps he will have some energy left to tackle the Middle East issue. He who was elected under the banner of change — so hard to effect in matters of health care — should make sure that “unflagging” support does not equate to a blank check that agitators on the right in Israel can use as they please, with no fear of the consequences.