Pressure Grows on U.S. to Tamp Down Its Spat with Israel

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

Israeli border police officers arrest a Palestinian youth during clashes in the East Jerusalem Shufat refugee camp on March 16, 2010

Benjamin Netanyahu is clearly feeling lucky. As his skirmish with the Obama Administration over Israel's settlement activity in East Jerusalem entered its second week on Tuesday, the Israeli Prime Minister was pushing back against Washington's demands. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has put the onus on Israel to "demonstrate its commitment" to the peace process by reversing a plan to build new housing units in East Jerusalem (occupied by Israel since 1967); declaring its readiness to hold substantial negotiations with the Palestinians on all final-status issues (including Jerusalem, whose control by Israel Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted is non-negotiable); and making other gestures such as freeing Palestinian prisoners and easing the siege of Gaza. But the Israeli leader insisted on Monday that the Jerusalem construction plans wouldn't change, and on Tuesday he answered Clinton by saying that "the government of Israel has proven over the last year that it is committed to peace, both in words and actions." Clearly, the Israeli leader is through eating crow following the furor caused by his government's public humiliation of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden last week.

Netanyahu appears to sense the political winds at his back. While the initial response by many in Israel had been to berate him over the provocation during Biden's visit, mounting pressure from Washington on a wider range of issues may turn the domestic political tide in his favor. Netanyahu last year strengthened his domestic political position by defying the Obama Administration's demand for a complete settlement freeze as a step toward resuming peace talks. And besides his own right-wing coalition urging him to stay the course, a wider range of Israeli leaders may be leery of allowing Washington to dictate Israel's actions.

As he moves to defuse the crisis on his own terms, Netanyahu may also believe that the political balance in Washington will tip in his favor. U.S. public opinion remains far more favorable to Israel than to the Palestinians, and with the annual conference of the influential America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) due to begin in Washington on Sunday, Netanyahu — who is expected to speak at the event, as is Clinton — appears to be hanging tough. AIPAC fired a warning shot earlier this week, blaming the Administration for the breakdown and urging it to "move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel."

With a number of prominent Republicans excoriating the Administration over the spat and some Democrats increasingly uncomfortable in an election year when many will struggle to hold on to their congressional seats, Netanyahu may be betting that the pressure is greater on Obama to tamp down the tension.

But the Obama Administration will be considering more than simply the narrow concerns of U.S. electoral politics. The showdown with Netanyahu underscores just how little progress Washington has made in resuscitating the moribund Middle East peace process. The limited "proximity talks" over which the latest row broke out are themselves an indicator of just how poor the chances are of brokering a consensual peace agreement between the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, even as events on the ground steadily erode the prospects for creating a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The current showdown reflects a recognition by the Administration that getting the peace process back on track may require a willingness to press Israel into actions that its current leaders are unlikely to take of their own volition, and that's an unappealing choice for a politically vulnerable Administration. But there are other voices making themselves heard in ways that preclude an easy retreat. Indeed, there's a growing belief in Washington that U.S. national interests across the region are imperiled by a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a manner minimally acceptable to the Arab world — a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital. After the East Jerusalem settlement announcement, Biden was reported by Israeli media to have told Netanyahu behind closed doors, "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us, and it endangers regional peace."

Biden's reported comments may simply be channeling a perspective coming from within the U.S. military, which now has nearly 200,000 troops stationed in the Muslim countries of Centcom's Area of Responsibility (AOR). Centcom chief General David Petraeus was blunt about the impact on his mission of the Israeli-Palestinian impasse in testimony submitted to U.S. Senators on Tuesday: "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR," Petraeus said in prepared remarks, adding, "The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas." The general made clear that "progress toward resolving the political disputes in the Levant, particularly the Arab-Israeli conflict, is a major concern for Centcom."

The message from the comments attributed to Biden, and from Petraeus' testimony, is clear: This is not simply about the Israelis and Palestinians; U.S. national interests are at stake. And that creates pressure on the Administration not to allow the peace process to remain stalled.

Nor are the Palestinians going to wait passively for what Senator Joseph Lieberman calls a "family dispute" to amiably resolve itself. After all, for the Palestinians, that "family" relationship has been a disaster, and they'll seek to drive a wedge on the issue by pushing back against Israeli encroachment in East Jerusalem and elsewhere. Palestinian activists have for weeks been protesting against Israeli construction activities in East Jerusalem, and on Tuesday those escalated with a "Day of Rage" called by Hamas, which led to fierce clashes between youths and Israeli police. The symbolic importance of Jerusalem throughout the Arab world makes protest there a touchstone issue that could generate a surge of outrage that the Palestinian Authority may be unable to restrain, particularly given Israel's intent to keep on building. Hamas is certainly more than happy to encourage a grass-roots challenge to the negotiation policy of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the form of protests in Jerusalem — and many leaders in Abbas' own Fatah movement, equally tired of waiting for diplomacy to deliver, are joining in. Settler groups on the Israeli side, too, are likely to up the ante. So even if the Administration manages to get "proximity talks" back on track, the battle for Jerusalem is likely to intensify.