Monday, March 15, 2010

Ramat Shlomo and Obama's Latest Snit?

The Jerusalem municipal planning commission announced the approval of a plan, and the American administration went ballistic.

Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist who writes what Americans like to read, regardless of the merit of his analysis, suggested that Vice President Biden should have gone straight to the airport. Apparently Mr Friedman thinks international diplomacy should be handled the way teenagers react to being told they can't have the car.

It strikes me that, viewed a little more objectively than from the pages of the New York Times, the incident might be appraised differently.

First, Let's bear in mind that the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo is not a deviation from Israel's express policy, a policy of which the Obama administration is well aware, and that Secretary of State Clinton recently praised as an unprecedented step toward advancing the peace process. And let us not forget that Ramat Shlomo is a Jewish neighborhood in a Jewish area of Jerusalem.

So, a municipal planning commission made an announcement that it had approved a plan that is entirely in keeping with declared government policy -- a policy which the US administration has praised, but of which it does not entirely approve due to its traditional refusal to accept Israeli sovereignty over any part of Jerusalem (in defiance of Congress). This happens when the Vice President is in town.

This can be seen as a little embarrassing, since it might have put Mr Biden in a slightly awkward position, but it was clearly not an orchestrated attempt to insult. Surely it was not like, say, inviting the Dalai Lama to the White House, which President Obama clearly did with wilful premeditation, intending to smack the Chinese in the teeth, knowing full well that no previous President had extended such an invitation.

It wasn't even as embarrassing or as nasty as say a Congressional committee declaring that a NATO ally -- Turkey -- committed genocide, after Turkey made it clear to the President that such a declaration might prompt a break in diplomatic relations.

This was just a case comparable to Ehud Barak being told by the TSA to take his shoes off at Dulles International Airport, or Shaul Mofaz being told he couldn't have a visa to the US because he was born in Iran. A little embarrassing. maybe a little dumb, and to be treated accordingly.

So, how did the US react to the discovery that the Prime Minister doesn't have absolute control over municipal planning commissions?

The Vice President showed up an hour late to a state dinner with Israel's Prime Minister -- a petulant, childish act intended solely as a personal insult to the PM. The protocol in such cases is, I believe, to tell the guest: "I'm sorry, you are late. The PM is no longer available. He has a tight schedule..." That is probably how Mr Biden would have been treated by any other PM of any other country. But Mr Netanyahu decided to overlook the insult.

But rest assured, Mr Biden would never have even considered showing up two seconds late to dinner with the PM of England, Canada, France, Russia or even Fiji.

Then, Mrs Clinton called PM Netanyahu to upbraid him. Again, as a matter of proper protocol, Mr Netanyahu should probably have told Mrs Clinton that if the President wished to speak with him, he had the phone number, and then he should have hung up. The unelected advisors of the President have no business telling off the heads of foreign governments. If the President wishes to do so, he may. The Secretary of State can call in Israel's ambassador to Washington to express her displeasure. She even might go as far as calling the Foreign Minister to discuss a matter of concern with him, while showing the respect and deference due a minister of a foreign government, but she has no business calling the Prime Minister of Israel to speak her mind. Rest assured, she would not allow herself that liberty with the PM of any other country.

So, I think maybe the US administration has taken a little gaffe that should have been overlooked, and deliberately used it with a heavy hand to show that it really really isn't Israel's friend, that it holds Israel in utter contempt and does not owe its government the minimal respect it would show to any other state.

I truly hope that that was what was intended, because the alternative is that the foreign policy of the United States is currently in the hands of people who think that the best way to handle a diplomatic setback is to stomp up the stairs and slam the door.

Avinoam Sharon