Tensions Mount Between the U.S. and Israel

A sudden crisis has erupted between Israel and its indispensable ally, the United States. And in an apparent effort to bring about change in Jerusalem's governing coalition, Obama seems intent on heightening, rather than smoothing over the tensions.

The falling out was triggered by the announced approval last week of an East Jerusalem housing project, just when Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel. The United States and, of course, the Palestinians consider those neighborhoods to be illegal settlements. And the timing could hardly have been worse: Obama's Middle East mediator, former senator George Mitchell, had been scheduled to push forward with "proximity talks"--hopefully meaningful, though not face-to-face--between Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas. Mitchell is still expected in Jerusalem and Ramallah this week, but sharper tensions--and a natural Palestinian curiosity as to what concessions Obama may wring from Israel--make progress unlikely.

Instead of talking the crisis down, the Obama Administration is now reportedly demanding that Israel take a number of steps that Netanyahu would surely see as humiliating and even unthinkable if he is to keep key right-wing political parties in his governing coalition. According to high level Israelis unwilling to be named, Obama's demands include:

1. Fully explain why the housing announcement was made while Biden was in Jerusalem, and take bureaucratic steps to ensure that top-level U.S. officials are never again embarrassed by the kind of declaration that American mediators used to call "a stick in the eye" just about every time they flew to Israel to push for peace talks.

2. Declare, even before talks with the Palestinians begin, that the topics addressed will include the thorniest issues: refugees, the borders of a new Palestinian state, Jerusalem's status, how to share water, the fate of settlements, and future rights for refugees.

3. Make a major gesture to Abbas, such as releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, so as to strengthen the position of Yasser Arafat's chronically weak successor. The Obama Administration would also like to see an easing of the siege around the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, as long as credit for the improved situation would go to the American-backed Abbas.

4. Reverse the decision to approve 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem.

Looking closely at the list--and Netanyahu has a special committee of cabinet ministers who began examining it on Saturday night--it seems that if he is to keep his coalition intact he could perhaps acceptably abide by #1, dance around #2, surely go along with #3, but never ever agree to #4, because Israel annexed the parts of Jerusalem it captured in 1967 and insists that the whole city is the Jewish State's capital.

If Netanyahu did reverse approval for the new housing, the powerful religious Jewish party Shas would likely bolt, and the prime minister's minority Likud party would therefore no longer command a 61-seat majority in the Knesset. As a result, new elections might be required.

If Netanyahu is forced out, few tears would be shed in Washington. He plainly has not gotten along with Obama on peace process issues, though they do perhaps see eye-to-eye on the extreme threat of Iran's nuclear program.

A less extreme possible result of compliance with Obama's demands might be a coalition shuffle that would have Shas and perhaps other right-wingers leaving, and the large moderate party Kadima joining the coalition. Kadima was established by former prime minister Ariel Sharon (still in a coma four years after his stroke), and was then led by the besmirched Ehud Olmert. Its current leader is Tzipi Livni, the former Mossad spy who had a good reputation when she was foreign minister. Vice President Biden pointedly met with her in Jerusalem last week, and in recent years she has had an excellent relationship with Hillary Clinton.

Israeli newspapers are speaking of these developments as the biggest rift between Israel and the United States in 35 years. And the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most powerful lobby groups in Washington DC, is practically declaring an emergency: all hands on deck; contact your congressman; push anyone you know to repair the Jewish State's relations with Obama. The group was also alarmed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's very public scolding of Israel this past Friday, in which she called the settlement expansion announcement "an affront and an insult" to the United States. She was harsh in public, and reportedly even harsher in a 45-minute phone call to Netanyahu in which he barely got to utter a word.

AIPAC sent its 100,000+ members an e-mail blast on Sunday, seeking to put the onus on Washington: "The Obama Administration's recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern. AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State."

A newer lobby group based in DC, "the pro-Israel, pro-peace" left-leaning J Street, issued a very different statement today. J Street says the Obama Administration's sharp reaction to Israel's housing announcement "was both understandable and appropriate," and adds that America should do more to suggest the future borders of a Palestinian state.

Clinton and Netanyahu will cross paths yet again next week, when AIPAC's annual policy conference brings more than 5,000 supporters of Israel to Washington, DC's convention center starting this coming Sunday. On the agenda for Monday are two keynote speakers: Secretary Clinton and Benjamin Netanyahu. The prime minister, proud of being tough from his years as a counter-terror commando soldier, but also famous for having the fluency of a consummate communicator, will doubtless turn to American Jews and pro-Israel members of Congress to take his side in this sour clash with Obama's team. If he privately believes the White House is trying to get rid of him, be on the lookout for a noteworthy mix of eloquence, defiance, and desperation.