Around the world this week, families concluded their Passover seders with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem Post’s diplomatic correspondent, Herb Keinon, wrote this week that a spoof of an Associated Press story (the byline is “Shana Habbab”) had an Obama administration official stating that the statement in the Haggada is “provocative and unhelpful for future peace talks.”
Since a certain segment of Jewish World readers tend to lose their grip when they read anything about Obama and Israel in the same paragraph, it should be restated clearly: Keinon was quoting from a spoof story; no one in the Obama administration actually suggested that the Haggada be bowdlerized in the interest of furthering Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
However, since the controversy erupted over the Israeli government’s approval of 1,600 new residential units in Ramat Shlomo — an Orthodox Jewish development in East Jerusalem — during the mid-March visit of Vice President Joe Biden to Israel, a million words about Jerusalem have been spilled in the press.
Specifically, the pundits have been waging a ferocious rhetorical battle over the substance of the ongoing public dispute between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration. Many of those in the United States and Israel who were predisposed to mistrust the president believe that his recent criticism of Israel shows that he intends to harm the Jewish state, or, as in the case of Netanyahu’s brother-in-law, Dr. Hagai Ben-Artzi, that he’s a straight-out anti-Semite.
“It’s not that Obama doesn’t like Bibi,” Ben-Artzi told Israeli Army Radio, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “He doesn’t like the nation of Israel.” Haaretz reported that the Israeli premier repudiated his in-law’s appraisal of the American president.
Indeed, Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday morning, according to JTA: “I have recently heard anonymous, unworthy remarks in the media regarding the American administration and the American president. I would like to make it clear: I find these remarks to be unacceptable. They are from nobody acting on my behalf.”
But Netanyahu’s own words are probably unlikely to sway hard-right commentators like Pamela Geller, who wrote on Andrew Breitbart’s Big Journalism blog that Obama “was wet-nursed on Jew-hatred. He grew up in a Muslim country and studied the Koran. He knows what is prescribed for the Jews in Islam. He knows that the Koran says that the Jews are the Muslims’ worst enemies,” etc. ad nauseam.
Likewise, a Jewish antagonist of Obama, Bill Kristol, casts Obama’s ostensibly hostile stance toward Israel as a matter of the president only caring “about being popular — in America, certainly, but in the world as well.” Kristol — who is usually wrong about everything, such as his argument, during the early days of the U.S.-led attack on Iraq, that the Sunni-Shiite conflict in that country was nothing to worry about — writes in the current edition of the Weekly Standard that “Obama aspires to be a leader of humanity, not merely a president of a single country.And there’s no better way to be a leader of humanity than to show disapproval of the Jewish state…. Obama’s proud of his anger at the stiff-necked Jewish state. It puts him in sync with the rest of the world.”
Actually, the Obama administration seeks to ensure Israel’s security, but has policy differences with Netanyahu’s government, a coalition that includes parties, and members of the premier’s own Likud Party, that will bolt if the Israeli government makes any territorial concessions in Jerusalem. In any case, both the U.S. and Israeli governments in the last couple of weeks have been trying to tamp down the public dispute over Jerusalem; U.S. officials want to restart peace negotiations — or “proximity talks,” the U.S.-mediated shuttle diplomacy aimed at bringing the Israelis and Palestinians together for substantive negotiations.
Apart from the question of building in Ramat Shlomo, there are myriad grievances festering in the Arab precincts of East Jerusalem, which have been neglected by a succession of Israeli governments. There have been large demonstrations by Israeli Jews and Arabs in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, for example, in solidarity with Arab families who have been evicted from their homes, which have been taken over by Jews.
There are other issues that are creating restiveness among the Arabs who comprise about one-third of Jerusalem’s population; they are holders of Israeli identity cards, but mainly not Israeli citizens. In the last few years, these Arab, or Palestinian, Jerusalemites also have been separated from their relatives in the West Bank by the security barrier that snakes through the city. They find themselves wedged between Israel and a 25-foot wall.
As the dispute between the U.S. and Israeli governments simmered, Netanyahu addressed the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, D.C. He said, in part: “The connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel cannot be denied. The connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem cannot be denied. The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 year ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital.”
When Bernard Avishai, an author (The Hebrew Republic) and adjunct professor of business at Hebrew University, heard the report about Netanyahu’s speech on Reshet Bet radio, he felt a “twinge ofÂ pathos.” He wrote on his blog (adorned with a photo of Larry Gopnik, the protagonist of the Coen brothers’ filmÂ A Serious Man, standing on his roof): “These are not stupid people. They are serious people. They know, surely, that the construction in contention is in East Jerusalem neighborhoods that threaten to entirely cut off 300,000 Palestinians from their families and commercial opportunities in the West Bank. They know that any effort to keep these neighborhoods, or preserve the status quo, will result in Bosnian style violence. They know that this violence would further undermine American interests in the region.”
The ongoing dispute between the U.S. and the Israeli governments is making unelected leaders of Jewish organizations in this country seriously nervous. In Israel, many proponents of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Palestinians are expressing discontent with their premier, who has maneuvered the Israeli government into a spat with its prime strategic ally.
On this latter point, Zvi Bar’el, writing in Haaretz this week, declares that “Netanyahu poses a threat to Israeli security because he tips the balance of U.S.-Israeli relations, which are essential for our survival. And not only these relations. If Washington gives Israel the cold shoulder, it will be showing the way for other important countries, from Britain to Egypt and Brazil to Turkey, to do the same. Israel is no longer an exotic citron, but has been exposed as just another lemon. We may mock Netanyahu for the impolite reception he received in Washington; we can snipe about the late hour of his meeting with Obama, past Israeli television’s prime time, and ask why Obama abandoned the talk for dinner with his children. But then we remember that this isn’t some other country’s prime minister who is being kicked around; this danger on wheels is our own.”
Getting back to the thorny question of Jerusalem, knowledgeable observers of that city counsel that if there is going to be a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will have to be an equitable settlement of the disputes between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem. Without such a resolution, the tinderbox of Jerusalem will likely be the scene of terrible tragedy.
— Mordecai Specktor / firstname.lastname@example.org
(American Jewish World, 4.2.10)