The Obama administration is manufacturing a crisis with Israel in anticipation of a post-election diplomatic push targeting the Jewish state, and this past week launched a series of broadsides criticizing the Israelis through the media and in press briefings, according to congressional sources and Jewish-American officials who spoke to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.
The White House and State Department lashed out after the Israelis advanced plans to build in areas the administration considers to be off-limits to new Israeli construction, using language that reporters noted is usually reserved for terror attacks.
Asked by journalists why the administration stated that it “strongly condemn[ed” Israel's plans to advance construction, a phrase ordinarily used “to denounce acts of terrorism,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest replied that the construction “provoke[s] strong feelings in the administration.” In that briefing, Earnest also suggested that Israel betrayed commitments to Washington, while a State Department official separately said Israel would be “cementing… perpetual occupation” if it built the houses.
The latest controversy revolves around construction that the Israelis say is within the already existing Israeli neighborhood Shilo, but that the administration says constitutes a new settlement. Congressional officials who spoke to TWS said that the administration's condemnation is a pretext for eroding relations with Israel and potentially for setting up a broader diplomatic offensive.
“They're launching this weird, aggressive campaign that simply will have no positive outcome,” a senior congressional source told TWS. “It's not an accident that all of this has been going on as Congress goes into recess [and] as attention is diverted by the election.”
The source said that while the administration has engaged in similar behavior against Israel in the past, this case appeared “far more coordinated and aggressive.”
“The president is in the market for a legacy,” the source continued. “I'm very concerned that he's going to do something that he considers to be dramatic, just to get his name on the process.”
Another congressional source told TWS that President Obama has been “waiting for an opening” to condemn Israel.
“200 housing units in an existing community that did not expand the boundaries at all? That's not something that should even make the news in Israel, let alone the U.S.”
“The fact that they seem so prepared for this, the fact that it comes at the exact same time as this crap from the New York Times and Vox,” the source continued. “I [think] they were waiting for something.”
A senior political official at a nonpartisan national Jewish organization told TWS that the White House seems to be setting up the Israelis to take the blame for a fabricated crisis, which could then be used to justify diplomatic action against Israel.
“It's no secret that the Obama administration is angling to do something against the Israelis after the election, when it will face no political pressure,” said the source. “That's exactly why lawmakers from both parties have been penning letters and resolutions calling for the President not to throw our Israeli allies under the bus at the United Nations or target them domestically.”
“The administration wants to be able to say the Israelis forced them to act, which is why they've launched these efforts to blame Tel Aviv for tensions.”
Lawmakers and sources close to congressional leadership told TWS they viewed the administration's efforts as unproductive and shameful.
Florida senator Marco Rubio criticized Obama for spending “his final few months” damaging U.S.-Israel relations instead of “finally standing up to Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and the mullahs in Tehran.”
“He shamefully insists on continuing to manufacture crises with our close ally Israel,” Rubio told TWS.
A Republican leadership aide said that the administration's attempts to sow discord with Israel were a distraction from “the real barriers to peace.”
“The administration is using this to distract from…the Palestinians' refusal to enter direct negotiations in good faith and without preconditions,” the aide said. “This unnecessary outrage does nothing to bring the parties together. On the contrary, it pushes them further apart.”
This is not the first time the Obama administration has faced criticism for deliberately generating diplomatic crises with Israel.
During the president's first few months in office, commentators noted that the administration was disproportionately “tough on Israel:” while serving up an “absolutist demand” to Israel for a freeze on settlements, officials allowed Palestinian leaders to “sit back” and wait for Israel to accept its new reality.
“[Obama] has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud,” the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl wrote at the time.
Less than a year later, the administration fiercely reprimanded Israel after a government official announced plans to build homes in east Jerusalem. One administration official called the decision an “affront” and an “insult,” while Vice President Joe Biden “condemn[ed]” the announcement, a phrase that reports noted “is rarely used in diplomatic terms when criticizing the behavior of close allies.”