The great brass ring of Barack Obama's foreign policy -- an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement -- seems to be rapidly slipping from his grasp. His demand for a moratorium on West Bank settlement expansion is now dead and buried, with scarcely an obituary in the U.S. mass media to mark its passing.
There's a general consensus in the progressive media that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spurned Obama by refusing to extend the moratorium and the U.S. president meekly backed down, leaving his administration to nurse a humiliating defeat. That's what most commentators would have us believe.
But not Akiva Eldar, whom Noam Chomsky has called Israel's most perceptive foreign policy analyst. In a column titled "Obama's show of strength against Netanyahu," Eldar offered quite a different view of the U.S. decision to stop pushing for a moratorium: "Obama is refusing to give Netanyahu a seal of approval to build in Jerusalem... Obama doesn't intend to passively watch the earthmoving equipment at West Bank settlement construction sites." Far from caving in to the Israelis, "the Americans acceded to the entreaties of the Palestinians and their friends in the Arab states, who demanded that Obama finally announce who the good guys are and who the bad guys are."
Another prominent Israeli analyst, Avi Isacharoff, agreed: "The Palestinians have realized that the American announcement is playing into their hands... It appears that the Palestinians have the White House sympathy market cornered and returning to the indirect talks will help them get even more... If Netanyahu does not show willingness for a historic compromise, then he is expected to receive Obama's framework for a solution, which the sides will have to accept or refuse."
The Palestinians' Arab friends don't want Obama to wait for Netanyahu at all. The day after the U.S. gave up on the building moratorium, Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit publicly declared that discussions should shift to an "end-game for a Palestinian settlement." He called for "two or three pages of a grand understanding to be offered by the international community to both parties," with a specific time for a deal to be reached.
Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at just that possibility. She committed the U.S. to "push the parties to lay out their positions on the core issues without delay and with real specificity." Though she said that the U.S. could not and would not "impose a solution," she put the two sides on notice that the U.S. would privately "offer our own ideas and bridging proposals when appropriate."
Then she sketched out what those idea would involve. Both sides "must agree to a single line drawn on a map that divides Israel from Palestine... The parties should mutually agree on an outcome that realizes the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its status for people around the world," because without agreement on sharing Jerusalem "there surely will be no peace."
Read Clinton's speech through Akiva Eldar's eyes and it looks like Obama used his secretary of state, commonly known as a pro-Israel hawk, to send a dovish message to right-wing Israelis: If you won't give us a settlement building moratorium, including East Jerusalem, and negotiate for peace, we are ready to insist on a grand understanding, telling you how you must make peace. In fact Eldar reports that Clinton has already "insisted that the Israeli government put forth a map with permanent borders as soon as possible."
That's also that's the way one Israeli "senior government official" read it: "Clinton's remarks on an American bridging plan are a very bad thing. Israel has been trying to avoid an American plan for years, and the bridging plan is in fact a peace plan."
Israeli right-wingers were further shocked when their defense minister and former prime minister Ehud Barak followed Clinton at the very same podium and announced that he agreed with her on the need to divide and share Jerusalem: "The western part of the capital and the Jewish neighborhoods belong to Israel, while neighborhoods with dense Arab populations should be under Palestinian control." Barak, who has always emphasized Israel's dependence on the U.S., was clearly signaling that Akiva Eldar is right: The U.S. is now just taking a different route to asserting its power over Israel, and it's time for the Israelis to submit.
Netanyahu was quick to say that Barak was not speaking for the government. So it seems there's a new struggle brewing inside the Israeli political elite between those who recognize U.S. dominance and those who would resist it. Jerusalem will always be a huge bone of contention. But the reaction to Clinton's speech from Netanyahu and several of his Likud party cabinet members suggests that another issue is more crucial right now.
Dan Meridor found "some good things in the speech... She said there would be a simultaneous discussion on five issues, and that puts an end to the 'security borders first' story." Yisrael Katz insisted that "no one will agree to predetermine the borders. We have an interest in other things first, not necessarily regarding the borders." Vice premier Silvan Shalom agreed that "the negotiations must not focus on the borders." And when Netanyahu himself identified the "core issues," borders did not make the list.
Why not talk about borders? Once borders are decided, Israel will be compelled to face excruciating questions: What happens to the Jewish settlers (perhaps as many as 200,000) who live inside the borders of the new Palestinian state? And how much of Jerusalem will Israel have to give up? Israeli right-wingers desperately want to avoid those dilemmas. So they're eager to have as many issues as possible on the table at once, to help them string out the negotiations endlessly without having to face the border question. For the Israeli right, as Eldar says, "the focus on the final-status talks offers an alibi for deepening the occupation."
Barak's Labor Party seems to be taking a different approach. On the heels of Barak's endorsement of sharing Jerusalem, another Labor cabinet minister, Isaac Herzog, "called on Netanyahu to form a political outline which would include the permanent borders, based on the 2000 [Bill] Clinton plan," which includes a shared Jerusalem.
Labor is apparently betting that a borders-first and share Jerusalem approach will enhance its appeal among Israeli voters. In a recent poll of Israeli Jews, nearly two-thirds said that "Israel should do more to promote comprehensive peace with the Arabs based on the 1967 borders, with agreed modifications, and the establishment of a peaceful Palestinian state."
Labor is also betting that Washington wants borders -- including the borders within Jerusalem -- to be the first item on the table. Labor's bet looks better now that U.S. negotiator George Mitchell has returned to Jerusalem with a simple message for Netanyahu: "The Obama administration wants him to take a position in the coming weeks on the core issues, with an emphasis on borders."
Labor's leaders know that most Israeli voters want their government to recognize the reality of political power: Ultimately the U.S. calls the shots. As Israeli columnist Shmuel Rosner, a very centrist but perceptive observer of U.S. - Israeli relations, put it, if Obama "signaled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu's domestic support would quickly evaporate."
Though words are powerful weapons in politics, "the important thing is not what the Americans say, but what they do," as "a source close to Netanyahu" said. "We must watch their next moves in the near future."
What the Obama administration does won't be decided in Jerusalem. It will be decided by the political winds swirling around Washington. Likud and Labor both have ardent backers inside the beltway and across the country. Clinton's careful wording shows her deference to the right-leaning "pro-Israel" lobby, which still wields plenty of power.
But not as much power as it used to. Now there's J Street, the increasingly influential American-Jewish lobby group that promotes a new definition of "pro-Israel" as pro-peace and pro- an urgent push to negotiate a two-state solution.
J Street has recently upped the ante, unveiling a new strategic campaign that's very much in line with the Israeli Labor Party approach. Rather than merely backing Obama, as it has in the past, J Street now says it will actively push the president and his administration to "focus on delineating an agreed-upon border between the state of Israel and the state-to-be of Palestine, and on establishing security arrangements." J Street has long supported a border that would run right through Jerusalem, giving the Palestinians the eastern half of the city as their capital.
"If the sides are not able to reach agreement on borders within the specified time period," says J Street, "the United States should present a proposal to both sides that adheres to the parameters presented above for a yes or no decision." There's little doubt that the Palestinians will say yes, as long as the U.S.- proposed map includes virtually all of the land occupied by Israel in 1967. J Street, like the Labor Party, is betting that most Israeli Jews will say yes, too.
J Street knows that most U.S. Jews are inclined to support more vigorous U.S. action. In an Election Day poll of Jewish voters, three-quarters said they want the U.S. to lead Israelis and Palestinians toward a two-state solution, and nearly two-thirds would accept more administration pressure on Israel to reach that goal.
There's plenty of support for a concrete U.S. plan within the foreign policy elite. Two pillars of the establishment, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, have publicly urged Barack Obama to "outline the basic parameters for a Palestinian state," with Scowcroft urging Obama to "specify the terms of a U.S. peace plan."
Knowing that a concrete U.S. proposal focused on borders first would have plenty of support in the U.S. and in Israel, Hillary Clinton used diplomatic words that left plenty of room for the administration to take that route. The key question is whether the U.S. public will heed J Street's call and give the administration enough political protection to adopt a vigorous borders-first approach, despite the inevitable blowback from the right.
This is no abstract exercise in diplomacy or politics. The lives of some 2.5 million Palestinians who have suffered under decades of military occupation of are at stake. Once borders are fixed the settlements will begin to be dismantled and the road to an independent Palestinian state, with East Jerusalem as its capital, will be clear.
U.S. progressives may be tempted to give up on the peace process and on the Obama administration, viewing it as mere putty in the hands of the Israelis, as many of their pundits suggest. But the administration is still the world's most powerful political actor. As prominent Israeli columnist Eitan Haber wrote, it's "the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes" and squash Israel whenever it wants. Obama has done it before and may well be preparing to do it again. It makes no sense to treat the elephant in the room as if it were irrelevant.
As in any political struggle, it makes more sense to pursue a variety of strategies simultaneously. Pressing the administration to offer a concrete peace plan, starting with a map of the new Palestinian state's borders, is one useful strategy among many that can lead to a just peace.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.