Saturday, July 25, 2009

Do Obama’s Jewish Backers Have Any Red Lines?

Jonathan Tobin

The demand issued to the new Israeli ambassador (and former Commentary contributor) Michael Oren this past weekend spoke volumes about the changing nature of the U.S.-Israel alliance. For the past few months, Obama’s Jewish supporters have been saying that the dispute between the two countries over settlements is not about the United States trying to harm Israel but rather a case of Washington seeking to stop “illegal settlements” opposed by many Israelis and most American Jews. But the demand issued to Ambassador Oren was not about some illegal hilltop outpost somewhere deep in the West Bank, in territory that most Israelis concede would be part of a future Palestinian state. Instead, the houses going up are in a section of the capital, albeit a neighborhood that prior to June 1967 was occupied by Jordan and, therefore, off-limits to Jews from 1949 to 1967. The 20-unit housing complex is in Sheik Jarrah, a still predominantly Arab neighborhood but one that, as even the New York Times concedes, is also home to foreign consulates and Israeli government buildings.

To Israel’s credit, its reply was quick and to the point:

I would like to re-emphasize that united Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged; this means — inter alia — that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city.

The Times article goes on to note that Israeli intelligence has pointed out that Hamas is in the process of buying up property in Jerusalem and that the moderates of Fatah “had set up an intelligence network aimed at preventing Palestinians from selling their property to Israelis.” Earlier this year, a Palestinian was accused of selling real estate to Jews. He was sentenced to death by a Palestinian Authority court.

Anyone who has visited Jerusalem in recent years knows there has been a building boom in Arab neighborhoods. But no foreign government has protested the increase in Arab housing in Jerusalem. Nor does anyone think there is anything wrong about Arabs living in predominantly Jewish areas.

But the Obama administration apparently believes th at the prospect of a Jew building a house in his country’s capital is worthy of a diplomatic incident. Let’s be clear about this: It is one thing to oppose building new Jewish towns near Arab towns deep in the West Bank or to question the building of Jewish suburbs near Jerusalem. It is quite another to maintain that Jews may not build or live in parts of their city.

It is a sad fact that no U.S. government has ever formally recognized Israeli sovereignty over a united Jerusalem. But all of them understood that Jerusalem was a separate issue from the dispute over the West Bank and had to be treated delicately, if for no other reason than that the vast majority of Americans supported Israel’s rights in the city. By escalating the dispute over Jerusalem into a major point of disagreement with Israel, the Obama administration has raised the ante in its efforts to pressure Netanyahu’s government. In this case, Obama has overplayed his hand. While Bibi is prepared to bend on some points, no Israeli prime minister would accept such a U.S. fiat over Jerusalem.

This is yet another moment to ask not just the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz but also the legion of Jews who raised money for Obama, vouched for his pro-Israel bona fides, and then gave him three quarters of the Jewish vote last November: Is this what you wanted? Did the majority of Jewish Democrats who are devoted friends of Israel expect that Obama would seek to create a rift between the U.S. and Israel — not about remote West Bank settlements but over Jewish rights in Jerusalem?

If a statement such as this, which is tantamount to a redivision of Jerusalem and a ban on Jewish life in the sections formally occupied by Jordan, is official U.S. policy, and if this policy is acceptable to such friends of Israel, you have to wonder, what is it that they would find unacceptable? Have they no red lines Obama may not tread over? Or is anything he does kosher by definition because he is a popular liberal Democrat whose good intentions toward the Jewish state may not be questioned?

The silence of Jewish Democrats can only hearten those who wish to blow up the U.S.-Israel alliance. The question is when will these friends of Israel find their voices.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of Commentary magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at:

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