06 October '14..
The most concerning aspect to the periodic arguments between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not that they fight, but what they fight about. No one expects a disagreement about how to approach the Iranian nuclear program not to raise the temperature a bit; it’s something many Israelis consider an existential threat and it would shift the balance of power in global politics further away from the West while isolating Israel even more. If the two are going to argue, in other words, argue over something important.
But you can tell the relationship is really on the rocks by the fights the Obama administration chooses to pick, most recently on two issues: Jewish construction in Givat Hamatos, a Jerusalem community just over the green line, and the private sale of existing homes in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan from Arabs to Jews. The case of Givat Hamatos is standard fare for fights over settlements: although the Obama administration is wrong here (as usual), it’s a petty but classic fight to pick for American officials looking to take potshots at Israel. (Though the optics of telling black Ethiopian immigrants they must live in substandard housing is not the Obama administration’s proudest moment, to be sure.)
The Givat Hamatos tiff, therefore, doesn’t speak well of Obama, but doesn’t really break any new ground. That’s not true of Silwan. Obama’s objection to a Jew legally buying a home from an Arab in Jerusalem is nothing less than ethnic segregationism, and press secretary Josh Earnest’s classification of such a home as an “occupation” is the kind of pro-Palestinian propaganda the parroting of which is, quite frankly, evidence of a level of surpassing ignorance shocking even for the Obama administration. (Discrimination which the New York Times endorsed as well.) On that note, this nugget from an earlier Times of Israel story about the controversy jumps out:
When asked about Netanyahu’s allegations that the US was telling Jews that they could not buy houses in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, which several Jewish families moved into earlier the week, Psaki did not clarify Washington’s position regarding the Ir David group’s independent purchase of Arab-owned houses there.
Instead, Psaki said that there were questions involving building permits and construction — an answer that seemed to address the municipality’s involvement in Givat Hamatos rather than the private initiative in Silwan.
It wasn’t clear that Jen Psaki even knew what she was being asked about. The degree to which this administration’s advisors and spokesmen are uninformed about issues on which they pronounce judgment is simply incredible.
It’s indefensible, so it’s strange for the Obama administration and its allies in the press to continue pushing the segregationist line. Netanyahu can’t quite believe it either, saying over the weekend that ethnic segregationism is “against the American values.” This is obviously true. But it caused a bit of a stir in part because of how news organizations chose to play the story. And here we have a great example of the split in Israel over journalistic ethics, between honest publications and publications like Haaretz. Both Haaretz and the Times of Israel ran the AP story on Netanyahu’s comments. Here’s the Times of Israel’s headline:
PM: US East Jerusalem critique is ‘against American values’
Accurate and precise. And here’s Haaretz’s headline:
Netanyahu: It’s un-American to rebuke Israel over Jewish homes in Jerusalem
Clearly false and intentionally provocative. Now, to be fair to Haaretz, they weren’t the only ones to run with a false headline. They appear to have run a modified version of the original headline but keeping the formulation. The Times of Israel chose to say something true instead. The Associated Press did not exactly cover itself in glory this weekend.
But Netanyahu’s comments were less an attempt to escalate a bizarre diplomatic incident and more a way of throwing up his hands, as if to say, “Mr. President, what do you honestly expect me to do about this?” Can the Israeli prime minister possibly–assuming he even wants to comply with the American president’s order–intervene to overturn a legal sale because it was made from an Arab to a Jew? What on earth could Obama be expecting here? That Israel be the one Western country to legally restrict Jewish property rights? In the year 2014? In Jerusalem? Does the president even understand what he’s asking here?
The safe bet is generally to answer such questions in the negative: no, Obama does not understand what he’s saying. That is usually the case, especially with regard to the Middle East, where his knowledge of history and politics has always been alarmingly limited. But at some point, ignorance ceases to be an excuse. These are important issues, and they have immediate ramifications not just for geopolitics but also for the safety of those involved, the Middle East being the tinderbox it is. It’s time for the president to swallow his pride, crack open a book and a map, and start making sense.