In the Arena

Kicking Sand

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As Michael Scherer writes below, Israel’s government was over-the-top outrageous in welcoming Vice President Joe Biden with the news that it would construct 1600 new illegal housing units on land the Palestinians consider their future capital in East Jerusalem. This is an act with both short- and long-term consequences. The short-term consequence has to do with the “proximity talks” just getting underway, with the U.S. shuttling between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators: this sends a clear signal that Israel does not intend to negotiate in good faith, certainly not when it comes to the territory in East Jerusalem it conquered in 1967. This is the second time in recent weeks that the Israelis have poked a finger in the eye of the Palestinians–the first was the unilateral decision to declare its intent to “improve” several religious sites–including the Patriarch’s Tomb, site of a famous massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein–on Palestinian lands, over which Israel has no legal jurisdiction. The timing of these stunts is extremely significant, and depressing.

But there is a larger, long-term issue here: this is a calculated insult, directed at the President of the United States. It is Bibi Netanyahu kicking sand in Barack Obama’s face. This is becoming a dangerous pattern for Obama: the Chinese treated him rudely when he visited in November and again at the Copenhagen Climate Talks. The Iranians treated his attempts to negotiate with disdain and hyperbole (although the Iranians, like the North Koreans, traffick in crazy threats with no basis in reality). And now Israel, an allegedly close U.S. ally, is doing it, too.

ADD HERE: According to this morning’s New York Times, Netanyahu may have been taken by surprise by the announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem–a decision made by the Minister of the Interior, who is a member of the right-wing religious Shas party. Still, the announcement was distributed by the Prime Minister’s office…and it is Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government.

The question is, how will Obama respond?

And if he doesn’t, what will the world’s malefactors conclude about his strength? The President has shown his willingness to use force–in Afghanistan and elsewhere against our Al Qaeda enemy. But he has not shown an ability to use power–which, in Leslie Gelb’s apt definition, is the ability to get other people to do things they don’t want to do. Knowing how to use power is more complicated, and requires more skill, than a simple decision to use force. Recent events in Pakistan–the arrests of Taliban leaders–indicate that the President and his team have used their power with quiet effectiveness in that benighted country. Israel is a tougher case. The President has tools to use against the Israelis–billions of dollars in aid each year, for starters–but the powerful Jewish lobbying group AIPAC, which has its Washington convention in a few weeks, and the even more powerful evangelical community will go berserk if he chooses to use them. The neoconservatives are salivating over the prospect of a public Israel-Obama breach, especially in an election year; Netanyahu, who understands American politics well, knows the potential political cost if Obama takes the bait.

On the other hand, if the President does not respond to this insult, the rest of the world–especially the Islamic world–may begin to see him as a weakling. (Just as it will if he fails to get sanctions against Iran through the U.N. Security Council). The President has other problems right now–health care, a looming Congressional election, the sense that he’s spending too much time on foreign policy as it is (an ill-advised trip to Indonesia is looming)–but Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown down a gauntlet and it will be interesting to see what, if anything, Barack Obama does about it. .