On the surface, that the Obama administration decided one fine day to pick a fight with the government of Israel looks like an unmitigated disaster for the Jewish state. What could be worse than its most important ally provoking the worst crisis (according to the Israeli ambassador to Washington) since 1975?
A closer look, however, suggests that this gratuitous little spat might turn out better for Jerusalem than for the White House.
(1) It concerns not a life-and-death issue, such as the menace of Iran's nuclear buildup or Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas predations, but the triviality of the timing of a decision to build new housing units in Israel's capital city. Wiser heads will insist that White House amateurs end this tempest in a teapot and revert to normal relations.
(2) If Obama et al. hope to bring down Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, they can't count Knesset seats. Peeling away Labor will lead to its replacement by rightist parties.
(3) An Israeli consensus exists to maintain sovereignty over eastern Jerusalem, so provoking a crisis on this issue strengthens Netanyahu.
(4) Conversely, U.S. histrionics make the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas more reluctant to enter into Washington's counterproductive negotiations.
(5) A recent poll of American voters shows an astonishing 8-to-1 sympathy for Israel over the Palestinians, so picking a fight with Israel harms Obama politically – precisely what a president sinking in the polls and attempting to transform one-sixth of the economy does not need.
Mar. 26, 2010 update: Rick Richman clarifies just how preposterous this "crisis" is by transcribing an interview George Mitchell gave in January 2010, where he indicates he has no problem with the Israelis building in Jerusalem. After noting that the 10-month moratorium on building does not include eastern Jerusalem, Mitchell notes with equinamity the announcement of new building there and explains that "for the Israelis, what they're building in is in part of Israel." The exchange then goes on:
GEORGE MITCHELL: Now, the others don't see it that way. So you have these widely divergent perspectives on the subject. Our view is let's get into negotiations. Let's deal with the issues and come up with the solution to all of them including Jerusalem which will be exceedingly difficult but, in my judgment, possible. The Israelis are not going to stop settlements in, or construction in East Jerusalem. They don't regard that as a settlement because they think it's part of Israel. …
CHARLIE ROSE: So you're going to let them go ahead even though no one recognizes the annexation?
MITCHELL: You say "Let them go ahead." It's what they regard as their country. They don't say they're letting us go ahead when we build in Manhattan.
Comment: The comparison of Jerusalem to Manhattan is priceless.