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ISRAEL: The peace process and that White House phone number thing

December 16, 2009 |  7:32 am

IMG_0110The White House phone number is no secret. Nor is it a secret that it's not actually the president who answers it. The public number is used to register comments on a range of issues including preventing military escalation in Afghanistan and stopping DEA raids on medical cannabis dispensaries. And there are the cranks and pranks too.

Every once in a while, the White House phone number features in the Middle East peace process. Years ago, Secretary of State James A. Baker III had been so exasperated by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that in an appearance before Congress in 1990, he rattled off the switchboard number and told Israel to call when it was "serious about peace." Reportedly, thousands called. Shamir didn't. Recently, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman echoed the same exasperation and a sentiment that some in Israel are concerned is deepening in the U.S.: "It's time for us to dust off James Baker's line: When you're serious, give us a call. 202-456-1111. Ask for Barack. Otherwise, stay out of our lives. We have our own country to fix."

The latest incarnation of this phone stunt took place last week, during a demonstration in protest of the 10-month settlement freeze declared by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Danny Danon, deputy speaker of parliament and a lawmaker from Netanyahu's party, held up a sign with the White House comments number and urged the large crowd of supporters to call to tell President Obama "hands off" the "Land of Israel" and its people. The following morning Danon explained that his move was aimed at mobilizing supporters to "tell Obama to go justify his Nobel Peace Prize somewhere else, not at the expense of the Jews in the Land of Israel."

Netanyahu is widely assumed to have agreed to the partial settlement freeze more as a response to U.S. pressure and with an eye toward appearing cooperative in the context of Israel's other
strategic concerns, rather than as a gesture to the Palestinians, who reject the partial move and say they will return to negotiations only when Israel totally freezes construction throughout the territories, including East Jerusalem. If Israel does this, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas told Haaretz today, there could be peace within six months. 

And the photo above has another number for the White House, in case anyone wants to rent it. No, the polls aren't that bad. It's just the name of a fancy chocolatier in the village of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem. Going out of business.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: The shuttered White House, for rent in Abu Ghosh. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / For the Times

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