WASHINGTON -- Why did President Barack Obama choose to turn a gaffe into a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations?
And a gaffe it was: the announcement by a bureaucrat in the Interior Ministry of a housing expansion in a Jewish neighborhood in north Jerusalem. The timing could not have been worse: Vice President Joe Biden was visiting, Jerusalem is a touchy subject, and you don’t bring up touchy subjects that might embarrass an honored guest.
But it was no more than a gaffe. It was certainly not a policy change, let alone a betrayal. The neighborhood is in Jerusalem, and the 2009 Netanyahu-Obama agreement was for a 10-month freeze on West Bank settlements excluding Jerusalem.
Nor was the offense intentional. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not know about this move -- step four in a seven-step approval process for construction that, at best, will not even start for two to three years.
Nonetheless the prime minister is responsible. He apologized to Biden for the embarrassment. When Biden left Israel on March 11, the apology appeared accepted and the issue resolved.
The next day, however, the administration went nuclear. After discussing with the president specific language she would use, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Netanyahu to deliver a hostile and highly aggressive 45-minute message that the Biden incident had created an unprecedented crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Clinton's spokesman then publicly announced that Israel was now required to show in word and in deed its seriousness about peace.
Israel? Israelis have been looking for peace -- literally dying for peace -- since 1947, when they accepted the U.N. partition of Palestine into a Jewish and Arab state. (The Arabs refused and declared war. They
Israel made peace offers in 1967, 1978 and in the 1993 Oslo peace accords that Yasser Arafat tore up seven years later to launch a terror war that killed a thousand Israelis. Why, Clinton's own husband testifies to the remarkably courageous and visionary peace offer made in his presence by Ehud Barak (now Netanyahu's defense minister) at the 2000 Camp David talks. Arafat rejected it. In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered equally generous terms to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Refused again.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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