x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Should Obama speak to the Israeli people?

If the US president has thus far seen no need to address Israelis directly, those among them who feel most threatened by the prospect of a settlement freeze have been vocal in their opposition. At a demonstration in Jerusalem, a settler leader warned: 'Anyone who dares give an order to prevent Israeli life in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the Land of Israel is destined to fall.'

In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Aluf Benn, editor at large for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, appealed to the US president, Barack Obama, to speak directly to the Israeli people. "Six months into his presidency, Israelis find themselves increasingly suspicious of Mr Obama. All they see is American pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to freeze settlements, a request that's been interpreted here as political arm-twisting meant to please the Arab street at Israel's expense - or simply to express the president's dislike for Mr Netanyahu. "This would seem counterproductive, given the importance the president has placed on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If Israel is part of the problem, it's also part of the solution. Yet so far, neither the president nor any senior administration official has given a speech or an interview aimed at an Israeli audience, beyond brief statements made at diplomatic photo ops. "The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence." But if Mr Obama has thus far seen no need to talk directly to Israelis, those who regard themselves as most clearly threatened by the prospect of a settlement freeze have been vocal in their opposition. At a protest outside the American consulate in Jerusalem on Monday, several hundred supporters of the settler movement expressed venomous opposition to the American president who they referred to by chanting "Saddam Hussein Obama! Saddam Hussein Obama!" along with shouting, "Mitchell go home!," referring to the US special envoy George Mitchell, currently in Israel for talks on the settlement freeze and other issues. "I believe if Barack Obama manages to hurt Israel they will be punished," one demonstrator said. "At some point Israel will survive and America will fall." Ynet reported: "About 1,000 settlers and right-wing activists, including Knesset members Uri Ariel, Michael Ben-Ari (both from the National Union party) and David Rotem (Yisrael Beiteinu), marched towards the US Consulate, carrying torches and calling for US special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell to 'go home.' " 'How dare he (Obama) tell the Jews where they can or can't live? The era when Jews were banned from living in different places has ended,' said Rabbi Waldman [the head of the Nir yeshiva in the settlement of Kiryat Arba]. " 'Obama beware. This insolence will bring about the downfall of the American leadership,' he said. 'Anyone who dares give an order to prevent Israeli life in Jerusalem or anywhere else in the Land of Israel is destined to fall.' "Yesha Council Director-General Pinchas Wallerstein said, 'This week the American pressure reached new highs that are a shame to democratic societies. We are brought here by America's treatment of Israel as if it were a banana republic and its willingness to abandon us in order to gain the support of public opinion within the Islamic world.' "Yesha Council chairman Danny Dayan added, 'We are here to call on the government to fend off US pressure to halt construction in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem [the Israeli occupied West Bank]. Not one construction plan has been approved since the inception of (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's government, yet the bulldozers are being readied to raze outposts." Arutz Sheva, which is regarded as the voice of the settler movement, reported: "Activists finished building 11 new outposts in Judea and Samaria [the Israeli occupied West Bank] Monday night in time for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's meeting with US special envoy George Mitchell Tuesday morning. The name of the project, dubbed 'Operation 11' by the Youth for Israel movement, was meant as a reference to 11 communities that were built overnight in the Negev during the time of the British Mandate. "Most of the builders were young, teenagers and adults in their 20's. While they hurriedly put the structures together, others were demonstrating outside the Jerusalem home of the prime minister. "The IDF had already pulled down two of the new outposts by night's end. One was Netzer, located between Alon Shvut and Efrat, in Gush Etzion. However, at least one Israeli newspaper claimed the IDF did nothing to stop the pioneers from building an outpost at Tzurya, near the Samarian Jewish community of Avnei Hefetz and the Arab city of Tulkarm. Some 200 people, including men, women and children arrived Monday to participate in the building of Tzurya. "Other outposts established Monday night were Inbalim, near Ma'ale Michmash, Givat Egoz near Neriya, and Oz Yonaton, near Kochav Ya'akov. Others that were still being worked on Tuesday morning included the Judean community of Mitzpeh Avichai, near Hevron, and the Samarian communities of Nofei Yarden, near Shilo and Reches Sela, south of Shechem." Earlier this month, Reuters reported: "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered an advisory post to a Jewish settler leader involved in a 1988 killing of a Palestinian youth during an anti-Israeli protest, a settler spokeswoman said on Monday. "Netanyahu's spokesmen would neither confirm or deny he had asked Pinchas Wallerstein, 60, director-general of the settlers' Yesha council, to serve as the prime minister's adviser on settlement affairs. "Aliza Herbst, a Yesha spokeswoman, said Wallerstein 'has definitely been offered the job,' and has been filling out forms for a vetting process by Israel's attorney-general, and that it wasn't clear how long that may take. "Wallerstein has conditioned acceptance of the post on Israel continuing to reject US President Barack Obama's demands to freeze all construction in Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, Herbst said in a telephone interview." Meanwhile, Haaretz reported: "The vast majority of American Jews back a settlement freeze, according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism. 'American Jews don't like when their government is at odds with the government of Israel,' said Yoffie, whose organization's 1.5 million members make it the largest Jewish denomination in the US. "But beyond that, he stressed in a telephone interview with Haaretz from his New York office on Monday, 'there are very important strategic issues at stake here. Iran is a real threat, and we all, including the liberal camp, take it very seriously. In order to deal with this threat, you need the support and friendship of the government of the United States. And you need the support and friendship of the people of the United States.' "That is why the current dispute between Israel and the US over construction in the settlements and East Jerusalem is so disturbing, he said. 'This is a time that requires smooth and strong relations with [the US] government. It's a time for differences to be worked through. It's a time for compromise and moderation. It's not a time to be involved in a dramatic public dispute." "Settlement activity at the West Bank is not popular here," he continued. "It never has been. It's absolutely the last thing in the world you want to be involved in a public dispute over. Because not only you won't have the support of this government - you won't have the support of the American people either."

pwoodward@thenational.ae