WASHINGTON (JTA) — The summoning of an ambassador usually signifies a crisis. So what does it mean when the ambassador isn’t summoned?
That’s the question that had U.S. officials scratching their heads after last week’s mixed signals over whether the State Department had summoned Michael Oren, Israel’s new ambassador, for a dressing-down over a Jewish plan to build 20 apartments in Sheik Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in eastern Jerusalem.
Israeli officials had leaked the reports of a "summons" to the media — except Oren was never summoned, JTA has confirmed.
Oren was at the State Department on July 17 for a routine, and mostly friendly, getting-to-know-you meeting. U.S. officials did raise the Jerusalem matter, but as part of a broader exchange.
So why leak a crisis when none is brewing?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested the answer two days later with a forceful defense of the Jerusalem settlement plans.
"United Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel," the Israeli leader said in a statement issued after the weekly Cabinet meeting. "Our sovereignty over it cannot be challenged. This means, inter alia, that residents of Jerusalem may purchase apartments in all parts of the city."
Netanyahu was using guerrilla leaking tactics to score points against an Obama administration that has made freezing settlement building — in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem — an emphasis of its efforts to advance peace negotiations, according to Amjad Atallah, the co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the liberal New America Foundation.
Atallah, a former Palestinian negotiator, speculated that the leaks were part of a Netanyahu government effort to influence U.S.-Israeli talks on settlements as they enter the final stages.
"They’re playing hardball, they’re pushing for the most extreme circumstances in hopes of moving the line of what they think the United States might agree to,” Atallah said, suggesting that Washington could end up moving “far away from its original position."
U.S. officials handling the negotiations have complained off the record to Jewish groups about the leaks campaign. Ma’ariv reported earlier this month that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made settlements a front-and-center issue in part because she felt cornered by a campaign to the effect that the Obama administration was not honoring earlier commitments to allow limited settlement expansion.
Israeli officials deny a leaks campaign, but confirm that Netanyahu wants to make it clear that building in Jerusalem is off limits.
"When the prime minister spoke on Sunday, he was repeating what he told the president when they met in D.C." in May, a senior Israeli official told JTA. "Israel is willing to be flexible and place severe limitations on West Bank settlement — but Jerusalem is off the table."
The latest exchange, according to some leaders of major Jewish organizations, underscores the need for better communications between the two administrations.
"There’s a question of trust and maybe even respect, which leads to leaking and leads to the public statements," Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, told JTA. "It’s not healthy for either side; it undermines the nature of the relationship."
Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, raised the issue of communications when Jewish organizational leaders met last week with Obama at the White House.
"I think there was understanding, there was no pushback" from the president, Foxman said. "At the end of the day, the way to put it under control is at the highest level."
Foxman suggested that part of the communications problem had to do with an Obama administration that was disciplined and on message almost as soon as it assumed power in January, and a Netanyahu administration that took weeks after its installation on March 31 to get its message together.
"That hurt," he said.
Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said the breakdown had more to do with policy differences as it did with a failure to communicate.
"These two new governments may have not yet established discreet communication channels, but the problem seems to be one of incongruent policies," Nir said. "Better communication can only go so far toward pulling in sync conflicting policies."
Atallah suggested that the leaks and the resurrection of the settlement project in Jerusalem, which had been on ice for years at the insistence of successive U.S. administrations, were delaying tactics.
"The Israelis might prefer a fight over settlements over the next few months rather than get hit with a permanent status agreement," he said. "It’s almost inevitable something will happen that will remove pressure, whether it is Gaza exploding, or the U.S and Iran, or something else in the region."
Israeli officials insist there is no communications problem but simply differences on a single issue in the wider context of agreement on a host of other issues.
"There are good personal relationships at different levels, there are constant communications on the issue of settlements, there is an ongoing effort to find common ground," the senior Israeli official told JTA. "A lot of effort is being put in by both sides, but we’re not there yet."
Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak is meeting in coming days with George Mitchell, Obama’s top envoy to the region, the official said. Such meetings have been held weekly on average since May.
Efforts are under way to smooth the waters. Oren is reaching out to U.S. officials and reassuring them that Israel does not view the disagreements as even close to a crisis. Israeli officials also are emphasizing that the two administrations are closer than ever on what Israel considers to be the much more challenging issue: containing Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
The key, Foxman said, is to lower the volume.
"The U.S. position on settlements was almost a barrage — the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, Mitchell, Senator Kerry," Foxman said, referring to John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee and an Obama proxy on Middle East issues. "It was a continuous public confrontation."