NEW YORK — Remember “The Poseidon Adventure,” the melodramatic 1972 film about a group of desperate passengers aboard an aging, ill-fated luxury liner about to sink?
The long-forgotten plot of the movie came to me when, in a discussion the other day, I described Israel’s latest diplomatic crisis as “The Joe Biden Adventure.” Unfortunately, the similarities extend beyond the sound of the phrase. For this, too, appears to be a melodrama about a distraught group — in this case politicians in Jerusalem and Washington — desperately seeking a means of escape from the S.S Oslo, the outdated, ill-fated peace process that is still taking in water, doomed to go under.
Joe Biden, of course, is the vice president of the United States, and arguably Israel’s most outspoken ally in the leadership of the Obama administration. At least he was until two weeks ago, when on arrival in Israel for talks planned to herald the latest reincarnation of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Biden was taken by surprise and embarrassed to learn that the Israeli housing ministry announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in east Jerusalem, setting off Palestinian outrage and calls against renewed talks.
Apparently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was surprised and embarrassed as well, having reached an agreement with the U.S. not to announce any new construction in east Jerusalem if the “proximity talks” — with U.S. Mideast special envoy George Mitchell shuttling between the Palestinians in Ramallah and the Israelis in Ramallah — were approved.
Netanyahu might be devious, but he’s no fool. And there is no logical reason he would deliberately and blatantly lie, and anger his most vital ally.
What appears deliberate, to some defenders of Israel and critics of Obama, is the administration turning this diplomatic snafu into a full-scale showdown with Netanyahu, based on Secretary of State Hilary Clinton chewing out the prime minister in a 45-minute phone call last Friday. Reportedly she described the U.S.-Israel relationship as in jeopardy, and made demands on Netanyahu to rescind the housing plans, free Palestinian prisoners and pledge publicly to put all issues on the table for talks with the Palestinians.
I think everyone needs to take a deep breath, examine the context of this controversy and step back from the brink of what is being described as the low-point in U.S.-Israel relations in decades.
Part of why the administration was so angry with Jerusalem was that the controversy was a re-run of one that took place last November when Israel announced plans to build 900 housing units in the Gilo section of Jerusalem just as Washington was working toward coaxing the Palestinians back to the table.
The U.S. expressed dismay, Netanyahu apologized, said he was blindsided — presumably by the interior ministry, headed by Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party — and promised that it wouldn’t happen again.
One reason why the Israeli government felt the U.S. reaction was (to use a politically charged word) disproportionate, was that Jerusalem has been upset for some time with an administration putting all the pressure, and blame, for the lack of Mideast progress on Jerusalem, and more specifically on its settlement policy. During that time, the Palestinians have resisted repeated U.S. attempts to restart direct talks, and continued to incite hatred against Israel. Just last week the Palestinian Authority honored a terrorist responsible for the murder of 37 Israelis, including 12 children, in 1978, by naming a public square after him. But the U.S. remains silent.
Further, last fall Secretary Clinton praised Israel when it announced a 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank — a freeze that did not apply to Jerusalem. The State Department said the decision “helps move forward” the resolution of the conflict.
Moreover, in his major speech while in Israel, while Biden devoted three sentences to condemning Israel’s announced plan for new housing units in east Jerusalem, he spent the balance of the lengthy address, entitled “The Enduring Partnership Between Israel and America,” praising the Jewish state and reaffirming the two nations’ “unbreakable bond … impervious to any shifts in either country and either country’s partisan politics.”
So what does it say about American credibility when the very next day the secretary of state tells Netanyahu that the housing incident has seriously harmed bilateral relations between the U.S. and Israel?
Ironically, the Biden trip was meant, in part, to bolster the image of the Obama administration in Israel after it had made a bold but false start last year on the peace effort by calling and pushing for a settlement freeze without defining either “settlement” or “freeze.”
Whatever their politics, Israelis grew increasingly skeptical of the new administration’s savvy and understanding of Mideast complexities. Obama’s ratings went down to single digits before the president began recalibrating his position. Progress had been made in recent months, most notably in a series of visits to Israel by top Washington government and military officials in working toward tightening sanctions against Iran, part of the common goal of seeking to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power.
Israel has already repeated one mistake from last year. It is paying the price for failing to put in place a mechanism to correct the lack of discipline and coordination between the ministries and the prime minister’s office.
It would be tragic if the U.S. repeats its blunder from last year, setting the bar too high, and too publicly, for Israel to meet. Last time it was the insistence on a settlement freeze (as if the settlements are at the core of the conflict rather than the Palestinians’ refusal to accept a Jewish state). This time it would be in demanding that Israel rescind its Jerusalem housing plans (scheduled for three years from now, incidentally), and reportedly to free Palestinian prisoners and make public that all issues with the Palestinians are on the table, etc.
Such demands may satisfy an immediate sense of anger among administration officials but potentially would have long-lasting and disastrous effect on Mideast stability, weakening Israel — and American credibility among its allies around the world.
Any immediate hope for Palestinian-Israeli rapprochement would end, with both sides blaming the U.S., and the chances for a new round of violence would increase. Equally frightening, Iran would be emboldened to continue its nuclear plans with little fear of resistance.
But such a scenario is far from inevitable. What’s necessary now is for Washington and Jerusalem to find ways to lower the tensions between them and commit themselves to making their rhetoric about mutual trust their policy.
At the end of “The Poseidon Adventure,” only a few hearty souls survive the ship’s collapse. Let’s hope “The Joe Biden Adventure” has a happier ending.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in The Week.)