At the opening session of last week's AIPAC conference, analyst Robert Satloff described U.S.-Israel tensions over Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as 5 to 6 on the Richter scale: Not cataclysmic, but enough to cause lasting damage.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her AIPAC speech, spoke of America's unshakable support for Israel, but reiterated the administration's view that such housing undermines the cause of peace and argued that the status quo is inimical to Israel's interests.
At times like this, I think back to 1977 in Jerusalem, as my Israeli friends and I watched with tears in our eyes as Egyptian President Anwar Sadat — the Arab leader who just four years before had led the surprise attack on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holiest day — emerged from his plane at Ben-Gurion Airport. Thousands of Israelis, thirsting for acceptance, lined the road from the airport waving little Egyptian flags.
The Washington-Jerusalem alliance has been based on shared values — one of which is the search for Arab leaders, like Sadat, who are willing to implement peace with Israel.
The Obama administration believes that finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute would have a transformative impact on relations with the broader Arab and Muslim worlds — a debatable point — and therefore, it wants both parties to refrain from actions that would undermine negotiations.
The housing announcement during Vice President Biden's recent visit was ill-timed, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered an immediate apology. There are differences of opinion in Israel and among American Jews about whether the temporary freeze on construction in the West Bank should extend to eastern Jerusalem, as advocated by the Obama administration. The current Israeli government, consistent with all Israeli governments since 1967, does not believe it should.
Obscured in all of this brouhaha, however, is the political shift that has taken place in Israel over the past 10 years, supported by the American Jewish community — acceptance of the two state solution that would entail evacuation of a major portion of the West Bank and, based on previous negotiations conducted by former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, also a readiness to entertain creative arrangements in Jerusalem that would address Palestinian aspirations.
Israelis already understand that the status quo is unacceptable, and that compromises will be required to preserve the Jewish and democratic character of the state. And they are prepared to move forward on those compromises, but only if they can be convinced that a genuine and sustainable peace will be the outcome.
As Netanyahu stated in his AIPAC address: "We are prepared to take risks for peace, but we will not be reckless with the lives of our citizens."
Jewish groups have urged the United States to press for more contributions from the Palestinians in the confidence-building arena. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad have made strides toward responsible governance in the West Bank, in part due to Israel's assistance in removing checkpoints and other barriers — developments that should be acknowledged.
Continuing anti-Israel incitement, the honoring of suicide bombers as "martyrs," and an unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state are all actions that erode Israeli confidence.
Nor has the P.A. leadership begun to prepare its public to understand that the Palestinian refugee "right of return" to Israel is incompatible with the two-state idea.
Even more problematic on the Palestinian side is the continuing de facto control of the Gaza Strip by the terrorist group Hamas. Any agreement with the P.A. would be limited in its effect to the West Bank, thus leaving a gaping hole in the effort to resolve the Palestinian issue. Despite Obama's urgings, precious little has come from the broader Arab world to reassure Israelis.
When the dust finally settles, the United States and Israel will be left with the need for the next Sadat.
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.