Like a chess player patiently waiting for his opponent to make the first mistake, the Obama administration has pounced on the opportunity to vent its anger with Israel. The public humiliation of Vice President Joe Biden during his visit in Israel was, apparently, the last straw.
A lot of left-wingers in Israel are grinning these days. Watching Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu sweat after being reprimanded by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is, sad to say, the best news we've had since his election. As one who has consistently called on America to use a much more active approach towards Israel, I too can't help but gloat just a bit. But we shouldn't gloat for long. One must still wait and see what President Barack Obama will do next. And in fact, this could all go horribly wrong if he doesn't handle this correctly.
So far, we're off to a good start. First, the 45-minute call between Clinton and Netanyahu, described in the media as very "difficult." Then, the summoning of Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, for a chat with State Department officials. That talk must have been a pretty rough one too, if Oren came out saying this crisis between the two countries is the worst since 1975.
Haaretz reports today that it hasn't ended there, and the administration is finally demanding Israel take some steps. Clinton demanded Israel take four steps "to restore confidence in bilateral relations and permit the resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians":
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.
It's refreshing to see Clinton finally being used correctly by the Obama Administration. While Obama is busy with so many domestic problems, this is precisely Clinton's chance to shine. Also, one must understand what a gutsy move confronting Israel is for the Democratic administration suffering from sliding popularity during election year. The big Jewish voting blocs of Florida, California and New York just might make Obama pay a heavy price during congressional elections come November if he keeps up the pressure on Israel. Knowing a bit about Republican behavior, I doubt they'll let the chance to get back some of the Jewish vote slip between their fingers.
But what's next? I think Thomas Friedman got it all wrong when he wrote yesterday in the New York Times that "the Israeli leader needs to make up his mind whether he wants to make history or once again be a footnote to it." Mr Friedman, letting Bibi make up his mind is like letting a 4-year-old play with matches.
Now it's America's chance to get things going. As Akiva Eldar wrote today in Haaretz, this is "the time for the leader of the greatest superpower to pull out the Obama plan for two states with Jerusalem as their capital."
But I'd like to take Akiva's advice one step further. I'd like Obama to be even more specific. I'd like Obama to strike while the iron is still hot. Now is the time for him to come out and support Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's intention to declare independence in the summer of 2011.
Obama might get hurt in the congressional elections because of that, but he just might get closer than any other president before him has to ending the occupation, and hopefully, maybe even the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
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