Mr. Netanyahu wanted badly to go to Washington. He wanted to warm himself in the worship of thousands of delegates at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual convention, far from the cacophony of his unruly ruling coalition. He knew that if he didn't get White House time during his visit, the media back home would report, chorally, that he'd caused a rift in relations with Israel's essential ally. To end the spat with the administration over Israeli construction in East Jerusalem, he made some half-publicized promises to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and got his invite to meet President Barack Obama.
And perhaps during this meeting he learned (if Benjamin Netanyahu ever learns) that you should be terribly careful what you wish for.
For the Washington visit has only made it more obvious that he has managed to estrange himself from Israel's friends. Support for Israel, the nation's allies are telling him, does not mean even begrudging acceptance of continued settlement building in occupied territory – and they will not make exceptions for East Jerusalem. Before Netanyahu arrived home, the local media were reporting on the crisis in relations with the United States.
Not only in Washington do Israel's friends regard Netanyahu as a pest and his settlement policy as anathema. In a February interview, conservative Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi described himself as turning "Italy into Israel's closest friend in Europe." But he added a caveat: "With my hand on my heart … persisting with this [settlement] policy is a mistake."
Israel's German friends are also infuriated by Bibi's antics. For historical reasons, German leaders aren't terribly comfortable berating Israel. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly condemned the Israeli decision two weeks ago to approve 1,600 new homes in annexed East Jerusalem. The backstory, according to Ha'aretz reporter Barak Ravid, is that Merkel intended to keep her criticism private. So she phoned Netanyahu, held a tense conversation, and sought to prevent any publicity. At a press briefing at Netanyahu's office, however, reporters were told that the prime minister had picked up the phone to Merkel in order to seek her support. The reporters were told nothing of Merkel's anger. The subsequent media stories infuriated the chancellor, who felt used. That's when she decided to go public. Chalk up another Netanyahu diplomatic achievement.
At the AIPAC convention, Netanyahu did get the ovations he wanted. He made his standard comparison between Iran's nuclear program and Nazism ("Seventy-five years ago, many leaders around the world put their heads in the sand") and insisted on Israel's right to build in East Jerusalem ("Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital"). The obsolete conventional wisdom is that AIPAC, with its uncritical support for hawkish Israeli polices, roughly represents American Jewish views. An AP analysis, based on that received wisdom rather than reporting, said that the president "risks alienating Jewish voters" by confronting Netanyahu.
A new poll sponsored by J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, gives a different picture: Sixty percent of U.S. Jews think that announcing the East Jerusalem construction during Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel damaged relations between the two countries. Among American Jews, Obama gets a 62 percent approval rating. Overwhelmingly, Jews plan to vote for Democratic congressional candidates this fall. For Netanyahu, banking on U.S. Jewish support might be as bad a bet as banking on Merkel to stay mum as he misrepresented her.
Netanyahu's AIPAC appearance actually served to highlight the Israel-U.S. rift, by allowing easy comparison of his words and Clinton's before the same convention. The secretary of state reiterated the administration's commitment to Israeli security. And then she described two strategic threats to that security: Iran's pursuit of nuclear arms and maintenance of the status quo of "Israeli occupation," thereby undermining Israeli democracy. Clinton repeated that the U.S. "does not accept the legitimacy of continued settlements" and again condemned Israeli construction in East Jerusalem as an obstacle to peace talks that Israel needs. What Netanyahu needs to understand (but probably won't) is that this is the new pro-Israel political stance, the up-to-date way of caring about Israel's future.
Just before Netanyahu's disastrous meeting with Obama, Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley made sure the grounds of the dispute were clear. In his pre-trip Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu had asserted, "From our perspective, building in Jerusalem is just like building in Tel Aviv" (Hebrew text here). At Tuesday's State Department briefing, Crowley recalled that comment and stressed, "We disagree with that."
If Netanyahu thought carefully, he'd realize that he also disagrees with himself. In Tel Aviv, building plans mostly involve normal urban decisions about land use, traffic, and real-estate values. In Jerusalem, building plans are entirely about the conflict with the Palestinians. The purpose of the Israeli neighborhoods of East Jerusalem is to make Israeli rule concrete, quite literally.
The 1,600-unit development in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood that sparked the latest crisis is a government project. It's another link in the chain of Israeli neighborhoods around the Old City. It is part of a wedge dividing the Palestinian downtown of East Jerusalem from Ramallah to the north. (The New York Times provides a good map.) About the time Netanyahu was likely shaving for his meeting with Obama , building permits were issued for the 20-unit project at the Shepherd's Hotel site in East Jerusalem. That development belongs to a company owned by the prime minister's old political ally, American millionaire Irving Moskowitz. It is intended to create another Jewish foothold inside the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah. Settlement there is intended to thwart any clean division of Jewish and Palestinian areas in a peace agreement. No one expects the project to stop at 20 apartments.
It's worth noting the domestic political capital that Netanyahu and Obama brought to their meeting. At Sunday's Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu acceded to the demand by a small clerical party in his coalition. The Cabinet voted to change the location of a new emergency room for the government hospital in Ashkelon, a coastal city that has been hit by rocket fire from Gaza. The United Torah Judaism Party claimed that building at the original location would disturb Jewish graves. The change will cost $40 million and delay completion of an essential medical facility by a year. But Netanyahu is unwilling to lose any part of his wobbly coalition. The same day, Obama enjoyed a rather different outcome on a far greater health-care issue and showed he is capable of decisive leadership.
It's clear who's in the stronger position. It's also clear that Obama has a more realistic understanding of what would serve both American and Israeli interests. The only question is how much of his new political capital Obama will devote to overcoming Netanyahu's obstructionism -- and to proving that he is indeed a true friend of Israel.