I tend to agree with the Financial Times' Tobias Buck that the provocative Israeli decision to approve a plan to build 1,600 new homes in a Jewish settlement in occupied East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's visit was a reflection of "the dysfunctional nature of the Israeli government on matters related to the peace process." As he and other journalists have noted, the committee that approved the expansion plan is part of the interior ministry, which is run by Eli Yishai, the leader of the rightwing, ultra-orthodox Shas party, and may be part of its effort to bury the moribund "peace process." The conventional wisdom now is that the decision amounted to an Israeli self-inflicted diplomatic wound that has damaged the relationship between the United States and Israel and that the government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has no choice but to play defense and cut its losses.
But even if one doesn't buy into an alternative explanation that "Bibi" Netanyahu himself had orchestrated the crisis in order to make it almost impossible to re-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it is still possible that the Israeli Likud leader could end-up emerging as the real political winner here.
It's not only that Netanyahu is opposed to any meaningful Israeli-Palestinian talks; he and his neoconservative and Republican supporters in Washington regard Barack Obama as a threat to their long-term goal placing the Palestinian issue on the policy backburner and re-activating the strategy of the George W. Bush years under which Israel would once again serve as the regional deputy of the American hegemon in the Middle East.
In fact, Netanyahu and his American buddies sense that Obama has been politically weakened (and you don't have to be a political genius to figure that out) and have concluded that this could be the ideal time, coming only a few months before the midterm election to pick-up a fight with the Democratic White House occupant and press him to fall behind the current Israeli policies. Or else, he could find himself confronting the opposition of a powerful bloc of pro-Israeli Republican and Democratic lawmakers. At stake could be the open Congressional races in November, including the Senate races in New York, California and Florida, where the so-called "Jewish vote" could play a critical role.
As I predicted a few weeks after Netanyahu's election as PM last year, "Bibi" will probably "activate his old neocon troops, led by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal editorial page and joined by Republicans on Capitol Hill" and "ask them to launch a major offensive against the 'appeaser' in the White House," hoping to bring political pressure on Obama to demonstrate that he was not "anti-Israeli."
Indeed, perpetuating the myth that Obama is "weak" on Iran and hostile towards Israel will certainly be good news to many of those Republicans and others on the political right. It is a political narrative that could be embraced by the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and become part of the campaign of those Republican presidential hopefuls who could challenge Obama in 2012.
In a way, what Netanyahu and his American political allies hope to do is a repeat performance of what the members of the first generation of neoconservatives had done to President Jimmy Carter, whose commitment to Israel and to protecting U.S. interests in the Middle East were challenged during his second run for the White House. And it worked.
"Bibi" could be in a win-win position if he decides to go mano a mano with Obama. At the minimum, it could indeed help re-energize the neoconservative-Christian Right political complex and strengthen the hands of Congressional and presidential candidates who would be willing to show-up in Jerusalem and give an Ich bin ein -- Jewish-settler address. And Obama could also find himself under pressure to get tough with, and "do something," about Iran.
Of course, it's possible that Obama may decide to respond to Netanyahu's challenge by following in the footsteps of President George W. H. Bush and invite the Israeli PM to a diplomatic duel, discovering that such an approach could actually help him some political brownies at home. But don't your breath.
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