No way to treat a friend

It is nice to see a real display of emotion from the normally dispassionate Obama administration. Unfortunately, if predictably, its ire is directed not against America’s enemies but against one of our closest friends.

Vice President Joe Biden, in Israel on March 9, publicly “condemned” the announcement by the Israeli government that another 1,600 homes would be built in East Jerusalem. He claimed the decision undermined “the trust that we need right now in order to . . . have profitable negotiations.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton piled on, phoning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to personally chew him out about this “deeply negative signal.” Even the White House politico, David Axelrod, joined in, calling what happened “an affront” and “an insult.”

If the White House has expressed similar outrage about other “affronts” and “insults,” I missed it. For example, there was the Axis of Evil summit in Damascus on Feb. 26 featuring Bashar Assad of Syria, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Khaled Meshaal of Hamas. They called for a Middle East “without Zionists and without colonialists,” mocked U.S. attempts to separate Syria from Iran and demanded that Americans “pack their bags and leave” the region.

Considering the amount of effort the Obama administration has expended on wooing both Syria and Iran, those statements were a public slap in the face. Especially coming less than a week after Undersecretary of State William Burns had visited Damascus “to convey President Obama’s continuing interest in building better relations with Syria based upon mutual interest and mutual respect.” Yet the administration is not reaming out Syria. That, no doubt, would be considered counterproductive.

Another rogue state actually received a public apology from State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley. On Feb. 26, he had the temerity to assert that Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi didn’t make “a lot of sense” when he called for a “jihad” against Switzerland. After the Libyans threatened nasty repercussions, Crowley had to backtrack: “I made an offhand comment last Friday regarding statements from Libya. It was not intended to be a personal attack.”

Why is the administration so hard on Israel -- the most liberal and pro-American country in the region -- when it’s so soft on its despotic neighbors?

Granted, Israel blundered by announcing the new housing while Biden was visiting, but Netanyahu has repeatedly apologized for what he said was an inadvertent slight. In November, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month moratorium on construction in the West Bank but pointedly excluded East Jerusalem. That was hailed by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell as a “positive development.” Now it’s an insult. Again: Why?

Two press leaks may illuminate administration thinking. First, in July 2009, President Obama reportedly told Jewish leaders at the White House that it was important to put some “space” between the U.S. and Israel to “change the way the Arabs see us.” Then an Israeli newspaper claimed that in a private meeting, Biden told Netanyahu that Israeli settlements were “dangerous for us”: “What you’re doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of those quotes (the second one has been denied by the administration). But in spirit they ring true. They indicate a mind-set that holds that Israeli settlements are the primary obstacle to peace and that an Israeli-Palestinian accord is necessary to defeat the broader terrorist movement.

Neither proposition is terribly convincing. If Israeli “occupation” is such a big problem, then how to explain the aftermath of Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005? Instead of spurring concessions, that led to rocket attacks by Hamas. The Israeli public has understandably concluded that more territorial concessions won’t be productive until the Palestinians prove willing and able to suppress extremists who will never accept the “Zionist entity.” That hasn’t happened so far, yet the administration remains silent about Palestinian affronts such as the recent renaming of a West Bank square after Dalal Mughrabi, leader of the 1978 “Coastal Road massacre” that killed 37 Israeli civilians and one American.

What about the second claim -- that progress in the peace process is necessary to quell terrorism? That only makes sense if you think that bombs are being set off in Baghdad, Islamabad or Kabul because of what happens in the West Bank. Most of the victims aren’t even Americans. They’re local Muslims. It is hard to see how their deaths have anything to do with Israel. But such attacks make perfect sense if seen as part of an intra-Muslim civil war pitting modernizers against the medieval ideologues of Al Qaeda and tied groups.

Suicide bombers are not going to be converted into McDonald’s franchisees by an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even if a deal were reached with the Palestinian Authority, it would be denounced as illegitimate by radical Muslims. They can only be defeated by changing the poisonous dynamic of the societies that breed them. That is what President Bush began to do, however clumsily, in Afghanistan and Iraq. If Obama is serious about reducing the threat against the U.S., he should do more to support peaceful opposition groups in Syria and Iran -- states that actually help to kill American troops. Instead, he’s picking on the only state in the region that’s consistently on our side.

Max Boot is a contributing editor to Opinion, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today.”