Last month, the White House pulled out the red carpet to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, but the charm campaign is a new phenomenon. Less than six months ago, the U.S.-Israel relationship was in deep trouble.
On March 9, Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel and was told of an administrative announcement by the Ministry of Interior approving one of the first stages toward the construction of 1,600 apartments in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood in northern Jerusalem. The announcement represented no dramatic change of policy or diplomatic message. But the Americans responded as if it was a deliberate high-level slap in the face, and the Israeli government apologized profusely.
After two days of condemnations from the White House followed by Israel’s profuse apologies, it appeared that the crisis was over. On March 11, the Associated Press reported that Biden “attempted to soothe tensions in a speech extolling the countries’ close relationship, signaling the U.S. wants to move beyond an embarrassing diplomatic spat over settlements that tarnished his three-day visit.”
Biden noted that the prime minister had “clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years…. That’s significant because it gives negotiators the time to resolve this as well as other outstanding issues.” Press accounts reported that Netanyahu had called Biden on Thursday morning, “and both agreed the crisis is behind them.”
On March 12, in a move coordinated with the White House, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unleashed a 43-minute telephone harangue of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Clinton called the settlement approval a “deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship… which had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process.” The State Department spokesman said Clinton stressed that “the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”
On March 13, Netanyahu convened a meeting of his inner cabinet to discuss the Clinton call and to announce that he was setting up a government committee to oversee building announcements. On March 14, Netanyahu discussed the issue with the full cabinet and declared that the incident was “regrettable and should not have taken place.” Ostensibly, the issue was over, at least as far as Israel was concerned.
Yet the White House – still! – had other plans.
Hours later, presidential adviser David Axelrod went on Sunday’s TV news shows to attack the settlement decision. He said it was “very destructive… an affront… an insult…. What it did was it made more difficult a very difficult process.”
Over the next few days, anti-Israel and critical columnists and bloggers unleashed their venom against Israel. On March 15, the New York Times’ Roger Cohen wrote:
President Barack Obama was furious. In a top-down administration like this one, you don’t get Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lambasting Netanyahu for 43 minutes and David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser, speaking of “an affront” and “an insult” and a “very, very destructive” step if America’s measured leader is not immeasurably incensed…. Netanyahu’s apology is not enough. The United States is asking for “specific actions.”
So what happened?
A fire that was supposedly extinguished flared up again and again.
Clearly, while Biden and Netanyahu were making up, in the White House a decision was made to apply Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s famous strategy for crisis management:
“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste, and what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you didn’t think you could do before.”
The 1,600 Jerusalem apartments would become the anvil on which the administration would forge a pliant Israel. The message would have to be amplified, and for the White House, the pro-Obama, purportedly pro-Israel J Street was a perfect vehicle.
According to newly released White House visitors logs, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and vice president of policy and strategy, Hadar Susskind, came to the White House to meet with officials in the White House Office of Public Engagement, headed by Obama’s close friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett.
On March 11, and then again on March 12, the logs show Ben-Ami set a meeting for March 15 in the Old Executive Office Building with Danielle Borrin, who served on the vice president’s staff and in Jarrett’s office. On March 17, another meeting was set in the West Wing, the White House’s inner sanctum, for the next day with Tina Tchen, Jarrett’s principle deputy and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
(See below: Tchen plays a key role in the liaison between the White House and J Street and the Arab lobby.)
On March 15, the day it met with Borrin, J Street issued a statement on the “escalation of U.S.-Israel tensions” warning that Israel’s “provocative actions undermine the peace process” and weaken the American attempts “to build a broad international coalition to address the Iranian nuclear program.” Parroting Emanuel’s strategy for crisis management, the J Street memo declared: “Bold American leadership is needed now to turn this crisis into a real opportunity to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The memo, in effect, called for an imposed American solution: “We urge the United States to take this opportunity to suggest parameters to the parties for resuming negotiations – basing borders on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps, with the Palestinian state demilitarized and on territory equivalent to 100% of the area encompassed by the pre-1967 Armistice lines.”
On March 16, J Street sent out an action alert to its members, warning: “Some hawkish pro-Israel activists are seizing the opportunity to attack the Obama Administration over Israel, urging the Administration to slow down and back off. The pro-Israel, pro-peace movement is stepping up strong… urging the Administration to turn this crisis into an opportunity for progress on two states.”
Four days after meeting with Tchen, J Street published an advertisement in the New York Times to push for White House activism: “It’s time for the Obama administration to seize the opportunity for bold leadership – putting concrete plans for a two-state solution on the table with the sustained commitment of the United States behind them. It’s time for the Palestinians to end incitement to violence. It’s time for Israel to stop allowing extremist settlers and their sympathizers to endanger not only the friendship of the United States, but also the very future of Israel.”
I believe the March 15 Roger Cohen column in the Times likely also came as a result of White House encouragement. A long-time Axelrod acquaintance confessed to me last year: “I think I made a mistake about a year ago in introducing Roger Cohen to Axelrod electronically. Axe never writes me back, and Cohen will never tell, but, I think Cohen is floating the Administration policies ever since then.”
On March 12, J Street founder Daniel Levy published in the Guardian a self-serving article about: “[The Jewish diaspora’s determination] to reclaim a more moderate and progressive vision of what it means to be pro-Israel and to apply Jewish ethics and Jewish values, that helped guide civil rights struggles in the past, to contemporary Israeli reality. Such efforts are gaining ground – notably the emergence of J Street in America.”
Levy – a member of the JournoList – wrote the first of a slew of critical pieces that week by J Street advocates and JournoList members, including Time’s Joe Klein, Andrew Sullivan, Spencer Ackerman, and Eric Alterman.
Using a football term, J Street promotes itself as “Obama’s blocking back.” The attempt by the White House and J Street in March 2010 to run over Israel after the Ramat Shlomo housing fumble was stopped well before the goal line. On March 27, three-quarters of the House of Representatives – some 337 members – sent a bipartisan letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing solid support for Israel and voicing the expectation that differences between Jerusalem and Washington will be smoothed over quickly and in private.
A week later, the Senate followed with its letter of support signed by 76 members: “We recognize that our government and the Government of Israel will not always agree on particular issues in the peace process. But such differences are best resolved amicably and in a manner that befits longstanding strategic allies. We must never forget the depth and breadth of our alliance and always do our utmost to reinforce a relationship that has benefited both nations for more than six decades.”
And after the Gaza flotilla incident, both houses of Congress issued another letter of support in June – support that the White House could not ignore. Eighty-seven senators and more than 300 members of the House urged the president to support Israel, explaining that Israel’s “blockade of Gaza was both legal and necessary, and that Israeli commandos were acting in self-defense when they landed on the ship.”
J Street opposed the letter, urging members of Congress to support a more “nuanced” communication: “We would ask lawmakers to demonstrate real courage and leadership at this critical moment to call on the President to turn crisis into opportunity and to make ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a central priority of his foreign policy.”
J Street complained that the congressional letter failed, among other things, to: “… address the impact of the present closure of Gaza on the civilian population.”
Then and today, less than three months before the congressional elections, congressmen and senators – and the American people they represent – express their strong support for Israel.
For now, the White House does too.
Tina Tchen – White House adviser, long-time Obama associate from Chicago, and head of the Office of Public Engagement – coordinates and encourages joint J Street/Arab American Institute programs and strategies.
Last October she addressed a joint meeting of the Arab American Institute and J Street, opening her remarks with:
You are quite representative of what we want to accomplish.
She appealed to the groups to promote Obama’s vision for the Middle East, and to work the Jewish and Arab American grassroots:
We need to not only change hearts and minds in the Middle East, but there are hearts and minds to be changed here in the United States as well.
J Street’s Ben-Ami and the AAI president Jim Zogby echoed and endorsed her message.
Tchen’s Office of Public Engagement is the destination for many of the White House visits by Zogby, as recorded in the White House visitor logs.