Israeli relations are worse now than they've been in 35 years, according to Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. And you've got to wonder why.
Yes, right-wingers in the Israeli government launched a diplomatic grenade just as the U.S. was about to preside over the first, very tentative talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority. Those right-wingers announced a big new Jewish building project in East Jerusalem, which was bound to incense the Palestinians. President Obama's key advisor David Axelrod suggested that the announcement "seemed calculated to undermine" the talks before they began. Many of us would omit the qualifier "seemed"; scuttling negotiation was obviously the goal.
To make matters worse, the Israeli right launched its attack just as Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel for what was supposed to be a love-fest. Biden chastised the Israelis, then in a major speech in Tel Aviv seemed to set the incident aside, focusing on the larger context of an enduring "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel.
Indeed, it came as a surprise to many when the White House followed up by having Secretary of State Hillary Clinton give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a long tongue-lashing and then sending Axelrod out to the Sunday talk shows to complain of an "insult" that was "distressing to everyone who is promoting the idea of peace and security in the region."
It certainly came as a surprise to the Israelis, who are used to have the Obama administration accept any insult with scarcely a whimper. Israel's most prominent liberal newspaper, Haaretz, reported that "sources in the Prime Minister's Office said over the weekend that the ensuing crisis appeared to be orchestrated by the U.S. administration, as Netanyahu apologized to Biden and believed that the crisis was behind the two allies."
It also came as a surprise to some seasoned observers in Washington, like the Washington Post's Deputy Editorial Page Editor, Jackson Diehl, who wrote that Biden was supposed to "sidestep such broadsides" as U.S. officials have done in the past and pretend that settlement expansion just doesn't affect the chances for a negotiated peace.
In other words, on both sides of the U.S. - Israel alliance there were voices calling for the calculated insult to the V.P. to be ignored, especially by the Palestinians, who are apparently supposed to settle for whatever crumbs they are given by the occupying power and its superpower sponsor.
But the commander-in-chief of the superpower did not let the matter slide. Again I say, you've got to wonder why, because Diehl is right on one point: Both Obama and his predecessors have let worse insults from the Israelis slide in the past. What's different now?
Journalist Mark Perry, writing on the Foreign Policy website, has at least one significant part of the answer. It seems that General "King David" Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in January to give them the results of conversations U.S. military leaders had with officials throughout the Arab world. The consensus: Because of the administration's failure to stand up to the Israelis, "America was not only viewed as weak, but its military posture in the region was eroding." Perry claims (though he cites no specific sources) that this news "hit the White House like a bombshell."
Huh? It's news that the U.S. image has suffered from looking like it's being pushed around by little Israel? The White House didn't know that before? Hard to imagine.
I suspect that the real bombshell was that the Pentagon was expressing concern at the highest level. As Perry concludes, no DC lobby, not even the Israel lobby, "is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military." Perhaps this was the first time that such a level of anxiety had wafted across the Potomac from the Pentagon to the White House.
Obama did imply, in his groundbreaking Cairo speech, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was harmful to U.S. security interests. But he said it in such elliptical terms that no one took it very seriously -- apparently not even he himself, judging from his weak and waffling stances on the issue. Perhaps now, with alarm bells ringing in the JCS office, he will start to get serious about forcing the Israelis to do what's necessary to create the peace agreement that most of the world has long seen as inevitable.
Netanyahu refused to cancel the announced new building in East Jerusalem (which he claims took him by surprise), because he fears alienating his right-wing base of support. But as a leading Israeli observer of U.S. - Israel relations, Shmuel Rosner, noted, if Obama "signalled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr Netanyah's domestic support would quickly evaporate."
The U.S. is still in the driver's seat here. The question is whether, now driven by military concerns, the administration will steer the Israelis toward a just peace, whether they like it or not.