The limits of presidential power

Neil Macdonald on the sudden tension between Obama's Washington and Netanyahu's Israel.

I was once among those who thought Barack Obama would be able to run a scythe through the dense brambles of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and, finally, put together some sort of peace deal.

I said as much in this space last year. But, having worked as a Middle East correspondent, I probably should have known better.

Now, after 14 months of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the White House has been reduced to angry, repeated condemnations of the Israeli government, which so adroitly punctured Vice-President Joe Biden's peace mission last week.

The visit was intended to set everyone on a new, shining path and Biden was a good envoy — a pro-Israel foreign-policy expert well known to the security establishment in Tel Aviv.

He clearly meant it when he stood up on his first day there and talked about the U.S. devotion to Israel's security, and when he called the Jewish state "the light and the hope" to world Jewry.

But as Biden was speaking, Israel's housing ministry was announcing the planned expansion of 1,600 Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem. Just about the entire world, with the exception of Israel, regards the project as a settlement and Israeli settlement-building is one of the greatest, and growing, obstacles to any deal.

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden at Tel Aviv University in March 2010, calling for the resumption of peace talks. (Reuters)

The Palestinians immediately pulled out of the shaky "proximity talks" the Americans had arranged and an embarrassed vice-president issued his condemnation, which would be repeated for the next three days.

Tough stuff

It was tough stuff. The word condemn is usually what the White House reserves for regimes such as Syria and Iran.

The U.S. press carried reports about an angry Obama as well as demands from unnamed American officials that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu do something to "walk the issue back."

But you have to wonder (a) whether anyone in the Obama administration has read much Middle East history, and (b) whom exactly they thought they were dealing with over there?

Obama came to power intent on stopping all Israeli settlement building until the so-called peace process could be settled.

And by that he meant not just the hilltop compounds in the West Bank — which Israel calls Judea and Samaria — but also the Jewish enclaves in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its own, but, since it lies across the so-called Green Line, the boundary that helped establish the Israeli state in 1949, constitutes occupied territory.

In naming that goal, Obama set his administration directly in the path of a policy that has guided successive Israeli administrations for decades.

'Facts on the ground'

Ever since Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a band of early settlers moved into the al Naher al Khaled Hotel in Hebron shortly after the Six Day War in 1967, refusing to leave, Israel has relentlessly populated the territory it conquered.

To quote Yitzhak Shamir, the former militant who served as Israel's prime minister in the 1980s, the strategy was to establish "facts on the ground" — people and communities that, once entrenched, are devilishly hard to remove.

Now, that doesn't mean Israel would refuse to negotiate the future status of the territories or East Jerusalem. Quite the opposite.

Israel has been talking to the Palestinians for years. But it's kept building the whole time, amassing an ever greater number of its facts on the ground.

As Shamir once said, in explaining his decision to attend the Madrid land-for-peace conference in 1991: "I would have carried on autonomy talks for 10 years, and meanwhile, we would have reached half a million people in Judea and Samaria.

"I know how to display the tactics of moderation, but without conceding anything on the goal."

East Jerusalem

Move forward nearly 20 years and these tactics have been validated.

The build, build, build strategy has been pursued with determination in the West Bank, and with urgency in East Jerusalem.

Arab East Jerusalemites have systematically been squeezed, denied building permits and, in some cases, even stripped of residency. Their buildings are even occasionally bulldozed, while Jewish construction has expanded relentlessly.

Critics call it the "Judaization" of East Jerusalem, which was once a thoroughly Arab place.

Since Shamir's day, the settler population in the West Bank has tripled and now stands at about 300,000. There are also at least 180,000 Jewish inhabitants in East Jerusalem, the vast majority of whom are settlers. Together, they represent a total pretty close to Shamir's half-million goal.

By some estimates, Jews now outnumber Arabs in the eastern half of the city, rendering the old phrase "Arab East Jerusalem" questionable if not incorrect.

What's more, in the case of the Holy City, this expansion has been done with the overwhelming support of Israelis and world Jewry, who regard Jerusalem with an almost primordial reverence.

Take a number

So when Barack Obama, on taking office, demanded that the building stop, he was tangling with powerful forces, both in Israel and here in the United States.

Back home, Netanyahu cannily played the situation as a matter of standing up to outside pressure. That approach — along with Obama's decision to avoid visiting Israel personally, at least so far — appears to have persuaded many Israelis to stand behind their government.

Given that, it should have surprised no one when the Israeli housing ministry, which is run by the far-right, ultra-orthodox Shas party, one of Netanyahu's coalition partners, effectively flipped Biden the bird last week.

Essentially, Israel is daring Obama to do something about it. And it's not the first time the Israelis have faced down an American president.

In the early 1990s, when then president George H.W. Bush became annoyed at Shamir's refusal to stop building settlements, he cut off $10 billion in loan guarantees, which Israel needed to resettle Russian Jewish immigrants.

At the time, James Baker, Bush's secretary of state, publicly recited the White House switchboard's phone number, declaring to Israel: "When you are serious about peace, call us!"

(He also, notoriously, told a friend, "Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us [Republicans] anyway.")

Well, Shamir didn't phone the White House switchboard. But he didn't need to.

Eventually, Bush caved in.

What's more, Baker's sentiment about Jewish voting patterns was prescient: Following the confrontation with Shamir, Bush was crushed in several Jewish districts in the 1992 election, which, some say, cost him a second term.

At the time, the New York Times editorialized: "Americans are becoming ever less willing to go along with (Israel's) policies toward the Palestinians. Israel cannot afford to be alone, and Prime Minister Shamir would be reckless to think otherwise."

But in retrospect, that sounds almost naïve.

So Obama can condemn all he likes. Whether he can do much more is doubtful. After all, there will be mid-term elections here in just a few months' time.