The Obama administration has been relunctant to speak harshly about foreign relations. Such talk, it believes, would manifest American arrogance and be inconsistent with its twin goals of overcoming that arrogance and activating the “restart” button with the rest of the world.
But now the administration is talking tough. Unfortunately, its tough talk is directed not at Iran (which it wants to persuade), Venezuela (which it wants to engage), or North Korea (which it has wanted mainly to ignore) but at Israel.
Here’s the background. The White House has made it clear that it wants Israel to halt new construction in areas outside the boundaries of its original state. Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed his willingness to do this except with respect to construction that is part of the natural of existing settlements, e.g. the construction of new homes to accommodate population growth in a settlement.
The Israeli government asked the U.S. government to approve this exception and apparently leaked word of this request. Here is Secretary of State Clinton’s response:
[President Obama] wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly.
Gone at last is the administration’s reluctance to boss other nations through “pre-conditions.” When it comes to Israel, Obama is willing to dictate whether parents can build a nearby house for their grown children.
Why is Obama more willing to talk this way to our friends than to our enemies? There are two logical explanations. First, our enemies will throw these kinds of statements back in Obama’s face, whereas our friends will listen politely, at a minimum. Second, for Obama Israel is an adversary, whereas Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, etc. are mere annoyances.
I favor both explanations.
A third factor is also at work here, I think (whether or to what extent it is independent of the second can be debated). The U.S. wants to topple the Israeli government. Thus, it sees value in picking a fight with it.
Netanyahu, I assume, understands this. That may be why Israel leaked word of its request for permission to build in its settlements. Either the U.S. would agree to the request (most unlikely) or it would take what most Israelis probably see as an unreasonable position, thereby enabling Netanyahu to “make his record” that his problems in getting along with the U.S. are the result of Obama’s inflexibility.
Through her bossy, non-empathetic public response, Hillary Clinton has, I think, created Exhibit A for Netanyahu’s record, regardless of how he responds on this particular issue.
Via Jonathan Tobin.