Gideon Rose, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, held an on-the-record conference call today with Ehud Yaari, an International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Middle East Commentator for Channel 2 in Israel, who was speaking from Jerusalem while awaiting the return of Benjamin Netanyahu from the United States.
Rose asked Yaari to provide his “first-hand take on what’s going on right now” and received this response (the quotes are from my transcription):
… I think that the sense among the Israeli delegation coming back from D.C. right now is that they fell into a trap. The general sense in Israel right now is that the Prime Minister was [unintelligible] humiliated by President Obama. There is quite a degree of amazement at the way he was treated. I think it’s fair to say that neither the Prime Minister nor his Defense Minister Ehud Barak were aware [beforehand] of the kind of reception that they were greeted with at the White House. They did not expect the Obama administration to insist on a freeze of all activities in east Jerusalem, including those Jewish neighborhoods built decades ago, which was understood with both Presidents Clinton and Bush would remain part of Israel in any future peace settlement.
Rose asked whether the essence of the problem was Netanyahu’s statement at AIPAC that “Jerusalem is not a settlement”:
Yes. I think every Israeli prime minister — let’s assume the leader of the opposition Kadima Party Tzipi Livni was prime minister now, she would say exactly the same [thing], and she would not refute what I am saying now – it’s impossible for any Israeli prime minister to say that he is going to forego Jerusalem before final status negotiations with the Palestinians for an end-of-conflict, end-of-claims [agreement]. … And it was always understood between Israel and the United States, and I venture to say also between Israel and Mr. Abbas, that [the Jewish neighborhoods] were going to stay part of Israel in any future peace deal. …
Rose asked how important Yaari thought the current moment is:
I think it is the worst moment in U.S.-Israeli relations … going back to Eisenhower-Ben Gurion in ’56. But I hope it’s only a moment, and not an extended period. But I think that what should be of concern to anybody interested in advancing the peace process is the fact that at this moment, despite the rhetoric to the contrary, we have a lot of daylight, a lot of space, between Israel and the United States, and a very strong sense in Israel, including amongst many people who are not fans of the present government and Mr. Netanyahu – people who were extremely enthusiastic about the election of President Obama – people feel that this administration is seeking to maintain distance from Israel, to maintain some sort of ongoing strain and tension, if not a continuing crisis, in order to serve probably broader objectives in the Middle East.
Rose asked whether Yaari viewed this as an attempt to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition and make the government fall:
Absolutely so. I think that the sense in Israel right now — as I said the Prime Minister is just about to land, is that Mr. Netanyahu and Barak — and it’s very important that he took with him the Defense Minister, because he wanted to reassure President Obama that he is indeed talking about a two-state solution, that he is bringing his closest ally, the defense minister, who was the man who made the proposal at Camp David in 2000 — but instead he was presented by what is perceived at the moment at least as demands that are very difficult to accept.
If the American moves are generated by the wish to see a different government in Israel, then I have to say that, number one, I don’t think that the Netanyahu coalition is about to disintegrate; and number two, I do not think that the Kadima party – Livni – who seems to be viewed more favorably in Washington – that she is going to join the coalition any time soon. And if indeed the coalition breaks down and we go to early elections, I can assure you – I will take the responsibility for that – that the right wing will win.
The extraordinary aspect of this manufactured crisis is that as Iran proceeds steadily toward nuclear weapons, while the Obama administration lowers its sights from “crippling” sanctions to ones that will “bite” Iran’s ankles, the administration has decided to provoke a fight over long-standing Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem, which were not the critical issue even in the “peace process,” much less the broader Middle East.
At least, they weren’t until Obama elevated them into a precondition not previously raised as a barrier to any prior negotiation -- but which now have elevated Palestinian and Arab expectations beyond the level that any Israeli prime minister can fully satisfy.