Professor Moshe Arens
Haaretz - March 15, 2010
So sorry! Very sorry! Very, very sorry! We apologize! This will never happen again! The prime minister, cabinet members and senior bureaucrats repeated this over and over again last week in an attempt to set right what seemed to them to have been a major blunder, one they thought had spoiled what should have been a dramatic goodwill visit by the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might have been humming "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood," while he sat waiting for the arrival of Biden, who vented his anger over what he considered an insult by being deliberately late for dinner.
The government's critics in the media had a field day. According to them the decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to approve plans for putting up additional houses in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood, just as Biden was arriving in the country, was ruining relations between the United States and Israel and causing irreparable damage to strategic cooperation between the two countries. Listening to them, one might have thought that if some years from now historians try to determine why the U.S. administration did not take any effective action to prevent the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, they will find that the responsibility lay on the shoulders of a minor Israeli civil servant who set the agenda of a local planning committee for that fateful day.
Since it was well known in Washington that the Netanyahu government had not frozen building activity in Jerusalem, and that therefore not only construction there was continuing but also the routine planning activities that precede construction, the blame was now being put on the "timing." Presumably, if the planning committee had held its session a few days before Biden's arrival there would not have been a problem. Or, had it met a few days after Biden's departure and he left here under the impression that planning activities had been suspended in Jerusalem, only to find out differently on his arrival in Washington, there would have been nothing to get excited about.
"Timing" is important when investing in the stock market, but it is of little relevance here. There is no substitute for the truth when dealing with friends and allies. And the truth in this case is that while the Israeli government has frozen construction in Judea and Samaria for 10 months, there has been no such freeze in any part of Jerusalem, and certainly no holdup of planning procedures. There was no need for all this groveling by Israeli spokesmen. On the subject of Jerusalem, the government of Israel and the administration in Washington simply disagree.
Throughout the U.S.-Israeli relationship there have been disagreements on certain issues. They are inevitable, even among the best of friends. But generally, the disagreements have not been taken public, but have been discussed in confidential exchanges between representatives of the two governments. U.S. President Barack Obama, however, has taken a new approach, which he signaled at his speech last June in Cairo, where he publicly called on Israel to stop settlement activity.
The rationale of this approach was presumably to accelerate the negotiations between Israel and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But what the Americans must be finding out to their chagrin is that this approach is actually making it more difficult, if not impossible, for Abbas to come to the negotiating table. Whereas in the past he negotiated with Israel while settlement activity continued, without setting prior conditions, Obama's Cairo speech left Abbas no choice but to demand the cessation of settlement activity in Judea and Samaria as a condition for entering negotiations. After all, he cannot be less Palestinian than Obama.
Now, after the statements made by Biden in Israel, followed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's public rebuke of Netanyahu, he will demand the cessation of construction in Jerusalem, and possibly even the freezing of all planning activity regarding future construction as a condition for beginning negotiations with Israel. As the saying goes, "why make it difficult, when with a little effort you can make it impossible?" This is hardly the way to advance the peace process.
Moshe Arens (Hebrew: משה ארנס, born 27 December 1925) is an Israeli-American aeronautical engineer, researcher, diplomat and politician. A member of Knesset representing the Likud party between 1973 and 1992 and again from 1999 until 2003, he served as Minister of Defense three times and once as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Arens also served as Israel's Ambassador to the United States and was professor at the Technion in Haifa. He currently serves as the Chairman of the International Board of Governors at the University Center in Ariel.