WSJ: What is Obama thinking by attacking Israel?

Either the Obama administration has really decided to throw Israel under the bus, or … well, what other interpretation can be made from their rhetoric on settlements in Jerusalem?  The Wall Street Journal scratches its head to wonder why Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton have chosen this particular time to issue condemnations of Israel, just when Obama would probably like to have some influence to keep them from striking Iran.  From their perspective, it looks like an attempt to meddle in Israel’s electoral politics:

When it comes to Israel, however, the Administration has no trouble rising to a high pitch of public indignation. On a visit to Israel last week, Vice President Joe Biden condemned an announcement by a mid-level Israeli official that the government had approved a planning stage—the fourth out of seven required—for the construction of 1,600 housing units in north Jerusalem. Assuming final approval, no ground will be broken on the project for at least three years.

But neither that nor repeated apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—at what White House sources ostentatiously said was the personal direction of President Obama—from calling the announcement “an insult to the United States.” White House political chief David Axelrod got in his licks on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, lambasting Israel for what he described as “an affront.”

Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents.

The subsequent escalation by Mrs. Clinton was clearly intended as a highly public rebuke to the Israelis, but its political and strategic logic is puzzling. The U.S. needs Israel’s acquiescence in the Obama Administration’s increasingly drawn-out efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear bid through diplomacy or sanctions. But Israel’s restraint is measured in direct proportion to its sense that U.S. security guarantees are good. If Israel senses that the Administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations, it will care much less how the U.S. might react to a military strike on Iran.

Netanyahu finds himself in serious danger of losing his governing coalition over the settlements as it is.  One Machiavellian conjecture is that the White House wants to push Netanyahu out to find itself a more pliable partner at the top.  If that’s what they’re trying, the White House’s heavy-handed effort is likely to backfire.  Barack Obama isn’t terribly popular in Israel, and he’s going to be less so if perceived as interfering in their elections.  The sudden hostility coming from this administration may have Israelis more inclined to close ranks behind Netanyahu.  Israeli politics are notoriously fractious, and a more subtle touch may have worked in pushing Netanyahu out — but subtlety isn’t exactly the hallmark of this administration.

Another possible strategy is to distance the US from any potential Israeli actions against Iran.  The WSJ notes that American restraint may be playing a role in keeping Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities in the way that Israel did against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak in 1981.  If the White House has gotten wind of an Israeli decision to move forward against Iran, they may be backing away from Netanyahu in an attempt to keep our fingerprints off of the mission.  That’s a little far-fetched, though, if for no other reason than the impossibility of convincing Israel’s enemies that we would have had nothing to do with it.  I doubt that even this White House would think that would work.

The last possibility, which the Journal poses, is probably right:

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

They forgot the UK, but otherwise, that’s the likely answer.  Never assign to malice alone what can be explained by incompetence.  This is part and parcel of an effort to supposedly make the US more lovable by insulting our traditional allies.