Not since George H.W. Bush tried to stop Israeli settlement activity has an American president openly confronted Israel. Now Barack Obama, first through vice-president Joe Biden, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is admonishing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about expanding settlements. Just as he has begun to make the case publicly for health care, so Obama is now starting to demand progress in the Middle East.
Obama, in other words,is going for broke. He has not given up on his insistence upon an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Instead, he's doubling down, much as he did in Afghanistan. Anyone who thinks that Obama lacks boldness should think twice.
The blunt fact is that this is no sudden outburst of anger, but a simmering fury on Obama's part. Obama's calls for negotiations have gone nowhere over the past year. Biden's humiliation was apparently the last straw. By flaunting its contempt for the administration, the Israeli government may have miscalculated.
Obama clearly believes that he has the political capital to lecture Israel, which is what makes the current standoff so fascinating. Obama is apparently calculating that the surge in Afghanistan, among other things, buys him enough political cover to push Israel to treat with the Palestinian leadership. Obama also appears to have a united foreign policy team. Biden, who is staunchly pro-Israel, was blindsided by the announcement of expanded settlements almost as soon as he touched down in Israel this week. The result has been an opening for Clinton, who lectured Netanyahu today. The message is clear: Israel is jeopardizing its special relationship with America.
Whether Obama's efforts will actually lead to a comprehensive peace is another matter. Obama could end up simply alienating the Democratic Party's traditional constituency of mostly liberal Jewish voters, who bridle at overt criticisms of Israel. But after a year of passivity, Obama is, to use a Clinton term from the 2008 campaign, finding his voice. America's allies and foes have been put on notice.