What happened in Israel?

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What happened in Israel this week is still coming into focus—but what is already clear is that it turned a relatively low-key visit by Vice President Joe Biden into a bona fide diplomatic incident.

The circumstances under which the Israeli government approved and announced its plans the building of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, a religious neighborhood in East Jerusalem, remain unclear, with both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai claiming that it took place without their knowledge and professing their embarrassment over the timing of the announcement.

In response to that announcement, Biden issued a statement that read, in part, “I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units…. The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of proximity talks, is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now.” This is the rough diplomatic equivalent of a shrieking fit of rage.

The question that immediately springs to mind, however, is how did such a diplomatic debacle occur? Given the labyrinthine nature of Israel’s government bureaucracy, it is at least plausible that Netanyahu and Yishai did not know what his own subordinates were doing.

However, if the announcement and its timing were, in fact, intentional, a handful of possible scenarios immediately suggest themselves. They are, of course, speculative, but in the wasp’s nest that is Israeli politics, they are by no means out of the question.

If Interior Minister Eli Yishai was aware of the announcement and Netanyahu was not, as Caspit himself hints, then one must keep in mind that Yishai is not from Netanyahu’s Likud party, but rather the religious Shas party. Yishai does not answer to Netanyahu, but to his party’s “spiritual leader,” an elderly and much-revered rabbi named Ovadia Yosef. Historically speaking, Shas has tended to play the role of power broker in various coalitions, and it is not impossible that Yosef, Yishai, or both decided to take this opportunity to remind Netanyahu that Shas remains a powerful independent member of the coalition that is more than ready to play the spoiler should the need arise.

Moreover, while Shas tends to be more dovish than some of the other religious parties, they were less than thrilled with the Netanyahu government’s voluntary settlement freeze and the Obama administration in general, and may have decided to take it upon themselves to remind the Americans of who actually controls Jerusalem; something with which, ironically, Netanyahu may not be entirely unhappy.

It is also possible, of course, that Netanyahu was himself aware of the announcement and its timing, and allowed it to go forward. While this seems unlikely, given his need for U.S. approval of a possible military strike on the Iranian nuclear program, it is at least plausible for two reasons.

First, it would signal to Netanyahu’s right wing coalition partners that he will not bow to American pressure to make unacceptable concessions—particularly in regard to Jerusalem—and that he is willing to absorb considerable political damage as a result.

Second, it would play into what may be Netanyahu’s long term strategy in regard to the Obama administration. He may be convinced (as many Israelis are) that Obama is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to Israel’s interests, and that any serious resumption of the peace process at Obama’s hands can only be to Israel’s disadvantage.

As a result, Netanyahu may be planning to simply wait Obama out. Aware of the fact that American public opinion is still overwhelmingly pro-Israel and equally aware of Obama’s growing domestic unpopularity, Netanyahu could simply be running out the clock until the midterm American elections in November, expecting—not unreasonably—that the Democrats will be handed a major defeat and a far weaker and more pliant Obama administration will be the result.

If this is the case, then Netanyahu’s tactics would be well within the Israeli political tradition. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, for example, tended to feign illness in order to stave off meetings at which uncomfortable demands would be made. While he has done nothing so crude, Netanyahu may nonetheless have succeeded in staving off the possibility of painful negotiations—and possible concessions—at relatively low political cost and, in terms of his coalition, possible political advantage.

All this being said, the most likely scenario is indeed the most obvious: that this incident is the result of bureaucratic mismanagement and extremely bad timing. Even if this is the case, however, the long term advantages Netanyahu may gain in the face of a short term debacle are still real. Any great politician has to be able to turn crisis into opportunity when the need arises, and for better or worse, Netanyahu is and always has been an excellent politician.

Benjamin Kerstein, senior writer for The New Ledger, writes from Israel.