President Barack Obama's long awaited big push to resolve the Mideast's festering problems is on.
Some of the administration's biggest guns have been sent to the Mideast in an all-out effort to get America's squabbling allies and clients to accept a comprehensive regional peace deal whose centerpiece is creation of a Palestinian mini-state on lands now occupied by Israel.
The only notable absence from the American diplomatic armada was, interestingly, Hillary Clinton, who was left at home to make nice to a visiting Chinese delegation.
The White House's big push in the Mideast is being driven in good part by the growing danger of an Israeli attack on Iran and/or Lebanon that has Washington far more concerned than it publicly admits.
Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, openly warned Iran of possible military action if Tehran does not cease its nuclear program -- which UN inspectors and US intelligence still says is non-military. His is the latest of a series of warlike threats from Israel against Iran. Israeli officials keep saying they won't even hear about the Palestinian issue until the US disarms Iran.
Some American experts even worry Israel might use tactical nuclear weapons against deeply buried Iranian nuclear facilities. Such an attack would produce a cataclysm that would also contaminate Iraq, the Gulf, the oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan and all the US military personnel in the region.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has emerged as the Obama administration's foreign policy strongman, eclipsing Hillary Clinton. His preeminence confirms that the Pentagon, not State Department, continues to spearhead foreign policy, as was the case during the Bush years.
Gates stood next to Barak as the Israeli minister issued his threats, clearly backing Israel's threats. Gates warned Iran it had until September to begin talks on dismantling its nuclear energy program -- or else.
Wasn't Barack Obama supposed to be the "peace president?"
Interestingly, the US has lived for over half a century under the threat of Soviet/Russian nuclear attack, and continues to do so under a strategy known as mutually assure destruction (MAD).
President Dwight Eisenhower refused demands from Republican hardliners that he use America's nuclear forces to destroy the Soviet Union's infant nuclear forces. The US policy remained that of no first strikes even after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev threatened, "We will bury you!"
But Washington seems to support Israel's insistence that it cannot live under the possible future threat of Iranian nuclear weapons -- if ever developed -- even though Israel has now deployed an indestructible nuclear triad of land, air and sea-launched nuclear weapons and an effective, layered anti-missile system that is better than anything the US currently fields.
In any event, the intensifying power struggle within Iran's bitterly feuding leadership will make any nuclear talks with the Western powers extremely difficult and uncertain. Possession of nuclear weapons has become an issue of national pride and modernity for all Iranians.
In an unprecedented act by an Israeli leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly defied President Obama's request that Israel cease building or expanding settlements on the West Bank and the Golan.
While the US peace offensive was in full swing, Israeli police began evicting Palestinians from their Jerusalem homes. No sooner had the weeping Palestinians been evicted from their homes than militant Jewish settlers, many from the United States, moved in. The US, EU, and UN made feeble protests that were ignored by Israel.
Netanyahu's defiance was a clear sign of the strength of America's Israel lobby and its domination of the US Congress that allows the Israeli tail to wag the American dog. Israel's Likud Party appears determined to hold on to most of the West Bank and Golan at all costs.
Israel had became used to getting its way with the accommodating Clinton and Bush administrations. Relations with the Obama White House are edgy in spite of Israel's clout in Washington.
Netanyahu reportedly called Obama's two most important advisors, Rahm Emanuel (whose father was Israeli) and David Axelrod, "self-hating Jews" for pressing Israel to end colonization and accepting a Palestinian state. Netanyahu later denied the comment, but the damage was done.
A key partner in Netanyahu's Likud-led coalition, Rabbi Ovadia Josef, spiritual leader (if he were in Iran, he'd be a Grand Ayatollah) of the religious Shas Party, called Obama, "a slave who wants to rule the world" for urging Israel to halt settlement activity. The pro-Likud Washington Post newspaper dropped its pretense of impartiality and also blasted Obama over the settlement issue.
Meanwhile, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, America's most powerful lobby, which reflects the policies and thinking of Netanyahu's Likud Party, reminded Obama not to press Israel into a peace agreement.
While running for president, an abject Obama promised AIPAC he would never force Israel into an agreement it did not favor. He also vowed never to compel Israel to share Jerusalem with a new Palestinian state, a pre-requisite to any lasting settlement. So candidate Obama effectively handcuffed President Obama.
In a stinging contradiction to Gates' threats, the Pentagon's chief, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, warned any war with Iran would be extremely dangerous. He expressed the widely held fear among the US military that an Israeli attack on Iran would drag the US into a war it does not want and is not ready to fight. US forces that now ring Iran -- in Iraq, the Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia -- are also vulnerable to Iranian ground and missile attack in wartime. In effect, they are hostages.
Mullen's very public warning was another important sign of the deep divisions within the Obama administration over Iran and the Mideast.
Lost in this fracas was the announcement by the militant Palestinian movement, Hamas, that it would accept (though not now formally recognize) Israel within its former 1967 borders. This was a very important step forward as until now, Hamas has refused to accept the very existence of Israel. In turn, Israel has used Hamas' refusal to avoid any open contacts with the most popular and democratically elected Palestinian group.
Long-simmering opposition to Israel's expansionist policies among American Jews has recently erupted into the open, spearheaded by the new "J Street Group," which opposes the pro-Likud AIPAC and supports Israel's peace movement, and creation of a Palestinian state. Other Jewish liberal groups are also challenging AIPAC's party line.
Not surprisingly, "J Street" is being denounced as traitors and "self-hating Jews' by the right wing Israel lobby. Compared to the 800-lb AIPAC, "J Street" is a minnow. But this split in American Jewish ranks is very significant. There will be no genuine peace agreement or creation of a viable Palestinian state until the influential American Jewish community throws its weight behind the peace plan.