After a diplomatic crisis last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been working to bring calm to the region, while U.S. President Barack Obama inexplicably appears to be trying to escalate tensions. Obama, a novice in Middle East diplomacy, may soon learn that fabricating controversy is not a good idea. Not in the Middle East.
In the weeks leading up to this crisis, the winds of war had already been blowing. Calls for a new "intifada" (uprising) were heard across the fractured Palestinian political landscape. Such threats from the suicide bombing and rocket-launching Hamas organization are commonplace, but even the feckless Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas began issuing his own threats of "a religious war." The predicate: Israeli announcements in late February to make several Jewish shrines in the West Bank protected heritage sites.
With the region on full tilt, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden came to the Middle East with a message from Obama: The administration sought to initiate a new round of indirect peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Then came the crisis. Israel announced plans for a housing project in East Jerusalem – a move that sparked considerable anger among the Palestinians, who overwhelmingly seek to usurp Jerusalem from Israel and make it their own.
Rather than issue a quiet rebuke, the Obama administration saw an opportunity to put Israel on the defensive. Israeli apologies were not enough. The plan was clearly to extract concessions from Israel in future peace talks.
Longing for a rift in the staunch alliance that has existed between Israel and the United States since Israel's inception in 1948, the Palestinians marveled at one that appeared to be playing out on the world stage.
U.S. officials hammered Israel for embarrassing Biden and for jeopardizing efforts to restart peace talks with Palestinians. But once was not enough. The administration continues to condemn Israel in harsh language. David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, recently heaped additional scorn on Israel, calling its announcement "destructive" and "an affront."
The Palestinians took their cue from the White House. They reacted with outrage, too. Only, the Palestinians street rarely expresses outrage in the form of harsh diplomatic language.
Egged on by the administration's admonishments, several prominent Palestinian leaders called upon Arabs living in Israel to march upon Jerusalem to "protect it from the Jews," leading to heightened tensions in the holy city over the weekend. Yesterday, youths wrapped in Palestinian flags and checkered headscarfs came out in force to burn tires and throw rocks at Israeli soldiers. Ten Palestinians and one Israeli were reported injured.
Today, Al-Jazeera reports that Palestinians have clashed with Israeli police in East Jerusalem after Hamas called for a "day of rage." At least 15 rock-throwing Palestinians were arrested. Israeli officials are bracing for more violence ahead.
It's too soon to know if a new round of violence is officially underway. But if it is, Obama will have himself to blame. If the president was looking for a way to jumpstart peace, he chose poorly. Drawing out this diplomatic crisis has only fanned the flames of hatred on the Palestinian street.
Jonathan Schanzer is the vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of "Hamas vs Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine" (Palgrave 2008).