Local analysts and activists joined the fray over U.S.-Israel relations, as the White House intensified its criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu over a surprise announcement of a Jewish building project in east Jerusalem.
The announcement, coinciding with a visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden, prompted an apology from Netanyahu and a rebuke from Biden.
In subsequent days, however, with Netanyahu rebuffing calls to stall the project, administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, labeled Israel’s behavior an “insult.”
Jewish leaders are encouraging both sides to resolve what Israel’s ambassador to the United States, former West Orange resident Michael Oren, reportedly called “a crisis of historic proportions.”
United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ on Tuesday issued an action alert (see sidebar) urging U.S. administration and congressional representatives “to issue a statement reiterating their support for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship and to call on Secretary of State Clinton to take every step necessary to immediately defuse tensions with Israel.”
Recognizing that “our government and the government of Israel will sometimes have different views on particular issues in the peace process,” the statement continues, “the United States and Israel are longstanding friends who need to resolve their differences in a close and private manner befitting strategic allies.”
The Obama administration’s reaction “has been disappointing, to say the least,” said Stanley Stone, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. “In terms of what the Israelis did, I think they have apologized for that.
“With the recent flare-up of violence in east Jerusalem and the calls of some leaders to have protests, there has been no comment on the part of the administration to the Palestinian Authority to lower the rhetoric.”
Louis Beckerman, who cochairs the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, said he finds the whole matter “baffling.”
“I don’t believe that the timing [of the housing announcement] was deliberate, but what a mess," he said. ”Why, he asked, would the Israelis “want to tick off their very best friends in the whole world and embarrass the vice president like that? I just hope that with time we’ll get a better understanding of the circumstances that led to it.”
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, others are debating who is to blame for the escalating tensions.
Judith Klinghoffer, who has taught history and international relations at two NJ universities, Rowan and Rutgers, is among those highly critical of the Obama administration.
The president is “hiding behind Hillary’s skirts,” she wrote in her blog, in an attempt to “counter Arab perceptions that he is not strong enough to stand up to Iran by beating up on Israel on the issue of settlements. After all, showing toughness by abusing Jews has a long ‘honorable’ tradition.’”
But Daniel Kurtzer, lecturer and S. Daniel Abraham Professor in Middle Eastern Policy Studies at Princeton University, said the Obama administration’s rhetoric was understandable.
“I think there is some pent-up frustration on the part of the U.S. administration over diplomatic overtures that have not worked this past year, including the bid to stop settlements,” said Kurtzer, who served as President George W. Bush’s ambassador to Israel from 2001 to 2005.
“When the vice president travels specifically to assure Israel of the everlasting bonds of a relationship, it was a smack in the face.”
Aaron Friedberg, professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, agreed.
“There is no doubt it was severely embarrassing to the vice president and couldn’t help but be seen by people in Washington as a slap in the face to them,” said Friedberg. “Whether it was intended as that or not, it certainly had that effect. The way they responded is what you would expect under the circumstances.”
Friedberg said the relationship was strained to begin with.
“It is probably made worse because at this point there is not a whole lot of trust between the two governments,” he said. “When you have the preexisting lack of trust there is less inclination to give the other side the benefit of the doubt.”
Friedberg said the rift between the Israeli and American administrations could cost Obama Jewish support if he runs for reelection in 2012.
“I would expect there will be a bigger vote for a ‘reasonable’ Republican candidate than there was last time around,” he said. “I think Obama will get fewer Jewish votes than he did before. But I would doubt there will be a big defection.”
Ben Chouake, the Englewood physician who is president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, said he was “confused as to why Obama is doing this. Why can’t Jews live in east Jerusalem? This administration should be especially sensitive to areas of racial and religious discrimination. I don’t consider this an issue. It is annexed territory and there is no violation of any agreement at all. They are making a much bigger deal about this than there should be. And frankly, for any administration to say ‘Jews can’t live anywhere’ is shameful.”
But Debbie Schlossberg of East Brunswick, the chair of J Street’s Central New Jersey chapter, said the diplomatic strains need to be resolved by peace negotiations. “Now we want even stronger engagement,” she said. “J Street would not like this lamentable, unfortunate incident to become a distraction from the talks that were about to happen.”