Laura Rozen, Ben Smith
Politico (Opinion)
March 15, 2010 - 12:00am

Bibi can hear us now.

A drumbeat of angry statements from senior administration officials has produced a domestic crisis for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a sense of crisis in the U.S.-Israel relationship. The unusually angry words from Cabinet members and top White House officials – including “insult” and “affront” – were a rare public display of unresolved tensions over the question of settlements and what some U.S. officials see as Netanyahu’s attempts to sabotage a peace process.

But beyond salvaging faltering, narrow “proximity” talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the Obama administration’s broader long-term strategy is less clear in the region and on Capitol Hill, and the week began with many key players in a kind of holding pattern, neither criticizing nor defending Obama’s forceful new line.

In some normally friendly quarters for the administration, the question is: what happens after the shouting dies down?

An immediate cessation of hostilities was not quite in sight. An American official confirmed Israeli reports that they’d demanded that Netanyahu cancel the housing plan and make other confidence-building moves. Administration officials believe the very undiplomatic show of rhetorical force, which came in response to the surprise announcement of new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem and Netanyahu’s failure to immediately quash it, got Netanyahu’s attention. They also say it was a necessary response to the public humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden, who was in Israel on a fence-mending visit at the time.

Netanyahu showed no public signs Monday of willingness to cancel the East Jerusalem housing project, though he apologized for the announcement’s timing and indicated that he, too, was blindsided. U.S. officials remain optimistic, however, that he will find a way to meet their demands and offer an opportunity to defuse the situation.

“We continue to make clear that we’d like the government of Israel to take the steps to create a positive context for these negotiations,”

an administration official said.

But in a multi-dimensional chess game in which every push on Israel is also a pull on Palestinian leaders and a ripple through the complex negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, the move has left regional experts and Congressional Democrats awaiting an explanation on where, exactly, this is headed.

“I think the administration was really rocked on its heels when this happened,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel who was a campaign adviser to Obama. Kurtzer said the White House believes the announcement may have been calculated by Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners to undermine U.S.-mediated talks. “The assumption in Israel is if the [Palestinians] don’t come to talks, they are the ones at fault. The administration is saying ‘No, you guys have messed this up.’”

Nevertheless, many interested players and observers in the region are still looking for connective tissue between the administration’s understandable anger and a comprehensive policy, particularly as it pertains to Iran. Kurtzer said the administration needs to explain how it sees the Israel Palestinian peace track as part of its larger regional efforts.

“The U.S. has a lot of stuff to do in this region that requires everyone stepping forward, whether on Iran, on Iraq, whether it’s ongoing efforts against terrorists in the region,” Kurtzer said. “And while these issues can be seen in their own right, and in terms of their own importance, our ability to marshal support has always been determined by perceptions of our power. And in the Arab world, those perceptions are very often tied in with our ability to deal effectively with Israel.”

The administration’s anger over the Israeli housing announcement comes as the U.S. is trying to ramp up an international alliance to pressure Iran, the most pressing shared security concern for both Israel and Washington’s Gulf and Arab allies. A procession of top American officials, including CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Security Advisor James Jones, and Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg have traveled to Israel in recent months for talks. But Gulf and Arab allies tell Washington that Israel's settlement moves and the derailed peace process make it hard to work with the Jewish state and imperil U.S. efforts on that front.

Some of Israel’s domestic allies, meanwhile, have begun to press the American administration to climb down, as clocks are ticking. The "quartet" of international players focused on Iran meets this week in Moscow, and the pro-Israel group AIPAC is due to hold its major annual Washington policy conference this weekend at which both Netanyahu and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are due to speak. That session looms as a particular showdown: the group’s traditional message that there’s no daylight between Israel and the U.S. has been replaced by a campaign to push the Obama Administration to end its tough talk.

“The Obama administration's recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern,” AIPAC said in a statement Sunday night. “AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State.”

The statement reflected concern in some American circles that Obama is jeopardizing the foundations of the alliance with Israel, something Biden had traveled to the Jewish State to reinforce.

“Does the administration want to fix this problem and insulate this issue from the broad contours of the relationship, or do they deliberately create the sense that the U.S.-Israel relationship is hanging in the balance?” asked David Makovsky, who studies the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Studies. Makovsky said he wasn’t sure of the answer to the question.

Some Democrats, particularly Clinton administration hands who viewed Netanyahu as deceitful and troublesome in the 1990s, defended the administration’s outrage. “Right-wing governments in Israel have regularly embarrassed high-level U.S. officials by making announcements about new settlement activity during or just after their visits,” former US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk wrote.

It’s unclear, though, whether Obama – mistrusted by the Israeli public – has Clinton’s leverage to force Netanyahu to choose between his domestic base and Washington.

The administration’s ability to keep up its pressure may depend in part on the willingness of its congressional allies to support it.

Republicans leapt at the chance to criticize Obama for pressing Netanyahu, but most pro-Israel Democratic members of Congress remained silent, disturbed by the Israeli government’s treatment of the Vice President and the damage to the peace process.

“So are they [the administration] using this? Yes,” said one pro-Israel Democrat in Congress, who would only speak anonymously. “Effectively? I hope so. It’s the only way sometimes to get the parties’ attention. In the end, the Israelis have got to know that the status quo is unsustainable.”

But Congressional sources also complained of a lack of clear direction from an administration that has yet to find a clear path in the Middle East.

“It would be really helpful if [special envoy George] Mitchell makes some phone calls from the plane, to say ‘We really need you to stay with the administration, we are trying to push the peace process forward,’ and if he would articulate some sort of vision, of where this next sort of piece of tactical fight is going,” said one Democratic congressional staffer who works on the issue.

“If there’s a plan out there, I sure wish they’d share it with us,” said another.

The administration appeared to be looking to Netanyahu to make the next move.

“If Bibi can find his way out, it requires two things: that he not build that housing [in East Jerusalem], which in practical terms, is not hard to say, since it’s down the road, and they have not broken ground. The second thing is, he has to promise, ‘no more surprises,” said Kurtzer, suggesting he “fix his government and fire people.”

Others wondered whether the eruption wasn’t an overreaction from an administration spread too thin, and driven too much by the president’s personal attention and inattention.

“That’s what happens in Obama world when you’re trying to do too much on health care, education, financial regulation, fighting two wars, Iran and beating up on Israel,” veteran U.S. Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller said. “A determined president with a strategy can trump domestic political interests; the questions is do they have a strategy?”


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