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Who’s the boss?

I’ve been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the  Green Line that demarcates Israel’s pre-1967 border. The rebuking ...

I've been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration's decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the  Green Line that demarcates Israel's pre-1967 border. The rebuking began with Biden's statement Tuesday, escalated with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's angry 43-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, and continued with White House advisor David Axelrod today describing the housing announcement as an "affront" and an "insult."

Earlier in the week, Washingotn Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl complained that Biden had fallen into a "Middle East trap" by condemning the housing announcement. Diehl made some good points, but his argument would be more persuasive if it didn't cite Condoleezza Rice as an example of how to better handle this kind of Israeli ambush. 

All I could find today was this utterly unpersuasive blog post by Commentary's Jennifer Rubin, who says  that Ramat Shlomo carries "strategic importance" and that the notion Israeli settlements undermine U.S. security is "rubbish." It is very difficult to think of anyone who isn't a hardcore partisan of the Israeli right who would agree with these sentiments.

I’ve been trying hard to find smart criticism of the Obama administration’s decision to rebuke Israel for embarrassing U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week by announcing the construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an area of East Jerusalem that lies outside the  Green Line that demarcates Israel’s pre-1967 border. The rebuking began with Biden’s statement Tuesday, escalated with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s angry 43-minute phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Friday, and continued with White House advisor David Axelrod today describing the housing announcement as an "affront" and an "insult."

Earlier in the week, Washingotn Post editorial writer Jackson Diehl complained that Biden had fallen into a "Middle East trap" by condemning the housing announcement. Diehl made some good points, but his argument would be more persuasive if it didn’t cite Condoleezza Rice as an example of how to better handle this kind of Israeli ambush. 

All I could find today was this utterly unpersuasive blog post by Commentary‘s Jennifer Rubin, who says  that Ramat Shlomo carries "strategic importance" and that the notion Israeli settlements undermine U.S. security is "rubbish." It is very difficult to think of anyone who isn’t a hardcore partisan of the Israeli right who would agree with these sentiments.

Meanwhile, the harsh U.S. criticism is having its intended effect, at least for now.  Israeli newspapers are jumping all over a chastened Netanyahu, opposition leader Tzipi Livni is feeling emboldened, and some in the Labor Party are threatening to pull out of Netanyahu’s coalition if he doesn’t shape up. The Jerusalem council that approved the construction is planning to lay low next week.

I don’t believe for a minute that this fight will make U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell’s mission any easier; the conditions for peace simply aren’t in place. But this showdown with Israel is important for a larger reason: the Obama administration desperately needs to show that it isn’t going to be pushed around by anyone. Now that he has embraced a policy of confrontation, the president needs to follow through — to back down would only signal to powers like China and Russia that Obama really is the pushover they’ve always assumed him to be.

UPDATE: AIPAC sides with Netanyahu, calling on the administration to "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests." This could get ugly for Obama.

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