Israel and America are having one of those periodic marital spats they have had over the years, replete with "I-am-not-taking-any-more-of-your-guff" outbursts by Obama officials at American Jewish leaders, and, yes -- it wouldn't be a real Israel-U.S. dust-up without it -- Israeli accusations that Jewish Obama aides are "self-hating Jews," working out their identity crises by working over Israel. Having been to this play before, and knowing both families, I'd like to offer some free marriage counseling.
Here's what Israelis need to understand: President Barack Obama is not some outlier when it comes to Israel. His call for a settlements freeze reflects attitudes that have been building in America for a long time. For the last 40 years, a succession of Israeli governments has misled, manipulated or persuaded naive U.S. presidents that since Israel was negotiating to give up significant territory, there was no need to fight over "insignificant" settlements on some territory. Behind this charade, Israeli settlers bit off more and more of the West Bank, creating a huge moral, security and economic burden for Israel and its friends.
As Bradley Burston, a columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, put it last week: "The settlement movement has cost Israel some $100 billion ... The double standard which for decades has favored settlers with inexpensive housing, heavily subsidized social services, and blind-eye building permits has long been accompanied by a kid-gloves approach regarding settler violence against Palestinians and their property ... Settlers and settlement planners have covertly bent and distorted zoning procedures, military directives, and government decrees in order to boost settlement, block Palestinian construction, agriculture, and access to employment, and effectively neutralize measures intended to foster Israeli-Palestinian peace progress."
For years, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the pro-Israel lobby, rather than urging Israel to halt this corrosive process, used their influence to mindlessly protect Israel from U.S. pressure on this issue and to dissuade American officials and diplomats from speaking out against settlements. Everyone in Washington knows this, and a lot of people -- people who care about Israel -- are sick of it.
The New York Times' Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner, captured the we-are-untouchable arrogance of the settlers last week when he quoted Rabbi Yigael Shandorfi, leader of a religious academy at the settlement of Nahliel, calling Obama in a speech "that Arab they call a president."
So if Obama has bluntly pressed for a settlements freeze, he is, in fact, reflecting a broad sentiment in Congress, the Pentagon and among many Americans, Jews included. Haaretz quoted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as calling two Obama aides pushing the freeze "self-hating Jews." Bibi's spokesman denies he said that. I hope he didn't. When you have to trot that one out, you're really, really out of ammo.
What about Obama? He has nothing to apologize for, policywise.
The president is working on a deal whereby Israel would agree to a real moratorium on settlement building, Palestinians would uproot terrorists and the Arab states would begin to normalize relations -- with visas for Israelis, trade missions, media visits and landing rights for El Al. If the president can pull this off, it would be good for everyone. But going forward, if peace talks get under way, there are a few style points Obama should keep in mind. One is: Don't get into the business of apportioning historical blame for this conflict, which his Cairo speech veered into.
Palestinians don't believe they are to blame for this problem; neither do Israelis. A religious Israeli professor friend of mine said it well: "People will give a lot if they think they are not guilty. My mother says to me: 'Look, I am ready to give them Jerusalem, but don't tell me that I started it.' " The other point is: Israel has real enemies. Iran's president says the Holocaust is a myth, that Israel should be wiped away.
And, he's trying to build a nuclear bomb. Israel unilaterally withdrew from south Lebanon and Gaza. Its leaving was messy, but it got out. And the first thing it got back was rockets. Israelis are like most people; they listen through their stomachs. That is, connect with them on a gut level that says you understand where they live, and you can take them anywhere. Don't connect on a gut level, and you can't take them anywhere.
Bottom line: Israelis need to understand this is not the Bush administration anymore, where they had the run of the White House; they have a real problem with America on settlements. Obama needs to understand that on Arab-Israel affairs, the less you say and the more you do, the better off you are. Every word in this conflict has its own history. Get the deal done -- a settlement moratorium for some normalization -- and that breakthrough will do the talking.
THE NEW YORK TIMES