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Is this the showdown?

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Someone has leaked to Haaretz "at least four steps the United States expects Netanyahu to carry out to restore confidence in bilateral relations and permit the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians." The steps were on a list that Secretary of State Clinton read to Prime Minister Netanyahu last Friday.

If true – and if the Obama administration is serious this time – fulfilling the demands will be a stunning humiliation for the present Israeli government, perhaps even causing the heavily oriented right-wing coalition to collapse. 

1. Investigate the process that led to the announcement of the Ramat Shlomo construction plans in the middle of Biden’s visit. The Americans seek an official response from Israel on whether this was a bureaucratic mistake or a deliberate act carried out for political reasons. Already on Saturday night, Netanyahu announced the convening of a committee to look into the issue.

2. Reverse the decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to approve construction of 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo.

3. Make a substantial gesture toward the Palestinians enabling the renewal of peace talks. The Americans suggested that hundreds of Palestinian prisoners be released, that the Israel Defense Forces withdraw from additional areas of the West Bank and transfer them to Palestinian control, that the siege of the Gaza Strip be eased and further roadblocks in the West Bank be removed.

4. Issue an official declaration that the talks with the Palestinians, even indirect talks, will deal with all the conflict’s core issues – borders, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements, water and settlements.

Netanyahu for the moment is staying defiant. On Monday, the Prime Minister stated, "Construction will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case over the past 42 years." Even more strident was last week’s bogeyman, Israel Interior Minister Eli Yishai. He declared that "there is no construction freeze in Jerusalem, nor will there be one. We’re sorry the Americans found the timing offending, but there is no freeze in Jerusalem."

While Netanyahu tried to give the appearance that all was normal during the weekly Cabinet Meeting on Sunday, Israeli consuls in the United States rushed to tell Haaretz their latest marching orders. Evidently, Netanyahu ordered the Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, to tell the consuls

"to lobby congressmen, Jewish community leaders and the media to convey Israel’s position. He said the message to be relayed was that Israel had no intention to cause offense to Vice President Biden and that the matter had stemmed from actions by junior bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry and was caused by a lack of coordination between government offices. "It should be stressed that [our] relations with the United States are very important to us."

According to the consuls, Ambassador Oren "sounded extremely tense and pessimistic." Oren was quoted as saying that "the crisis was very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations [between the two countries]."

Not reported was whether the ambassador and consuls were told to demand that the Israeli Lobby get the Obama administration to back off. If the interview Abe Foxman, head of the ADL, gave to Haaretz this morning is any indication, those were exactly the orders. Foxman blamed the situation on a failed U.S. policy. You really must read the full interview to believe it. Here is a sample:

"The continuation of the crisis is the fault of the U.S. Whatever happened, the prime minister apologized publicly and privately, issued a statement, the interior minister issued a statement, Israel did an al-het, [Biden] even accepted it. And then to wake up in the morning and to find [State Department spokesman P.J.] Crowley saying these terrible words – and this is not only the secretary of state, this is the president – and what’s worse, – with this linkage is also a belief that you can appease the Arabs, that all you must do is to placate them by giving them settlements."

Dennis Ross’ home away from home and Israel’s favorite American think tank, WINEP, has already chimed in to the Jerusalem post. WINEP’s head, Robert Satloff gave this analysis,

"[T]he U.S. administration needs to avoid demands that undermine the very purpose of the Biden visit, that resurrect the overreach of the first six months of the administration, and that threaten the reordered strategic priorities that have been a salutary course correction for Obama administration Middle East policy. It would be shortsighted for the administration to use this episode as an opportunity to reward the Palestinians — who, after all, have been unenthusiastic about American requests for negotiations for months — or to accept Palestinian arguments that "proximity talks," rather than direct negotiations, are an appropriate forum for substantive give-and-take. And it would be an analytical blunder for the administration to believe that this incident is an opportunity that could precipitate Netanyahu’s political demise: after all, this government — or another with him at the helm — is an accurate reflection of what Israeli politics these days is all about."

After the experience over the last year, it is hard to believe that the Obama administration will actually go through with a showdown. Some of us have argued for a long-time that a tough President, standing up to Israel, would be a political winning strategy. Hopefully, we will finally get a chance to see this thesis tested. As others here have pointed out, the U.S. military has made its view known, and it seems their clout has given Obama an impetus to change course.

Bruce Wolman
About Bruce Wolman

Bruce Wolman is a citizen journalist who has lived in Norway and the Washington area.

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