SATURDAY NIGHT UPDATE: The President has weighed in. According to Ha'aretz, this is the worst crisis ever in US-Israel relations. It may be the worst crisis, but if the US hangs tough, it will be best for Israel and the United States, not to mention the occupied Palestinians.
The President is determined to stop settlement expansion in Jerusalem and to get Israel to demonstrate that it is committed to negotiations. No way of knowing what will happen but here is my guess, if Obama persists, the Netanyahu government will collapse and there will be new elections. The issue before Israelis would be a choice between settlements and the relationship with the United States.
The last time that happened it was when George H. W. Bush was President. He made Israelis choose between Netanyahu's mentor, Prime Minister Yithak Shamir and the peace candidate America wanted, Yitzhak Rabin. . Shamir was tossed out by the voters and Rabin came in. That was the beginning of the peace process that Netanyahu is now eager to end, once and for all. I'm becoming more optimistic that we will not back down. One thing is certain. Bibi is having a very hard day's night.
FRIDAY NIGHT UPDATE: This is big. The Secretary of State really let loose on Bibi Friday night. Unprecedented.
My column from Friday morning (written before Clinton weighed in) still stands -- only the US is hanging tougher today than yesterday.
I will add, however, that although this all looks good, we should not kid ourselves. AIPAC is coming to Washington for their grovelfest (see link in original column below) and that means angry donors demanding that the US apologize to the Israeli government for hurting its feelings. Count on your favorite House liberals (Chris Van Hollen, Anthony Weiner, Jerry Nadler, Steny Hoyer, Alan Grayson, Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, etc) to lead the charge for Bibi with Senators Boxer, Schumer, etc joining in). But will they really go with Bibi over Obama over settlements? We'll know next week.
One thing to remember, though. Israel's behavior this week really seems to indicate that its posturing about Iranian nukes is a head fake. If Israel was really worried, really about to go to war with Iran, it would not have insulted the US government publicly. At least those of us who really do care about Israel (the real Israel, not the Israel of the settlers) can rest assured that the Iranian threat is not "existential" at all, as Israelis are always claiming. If it was, they would not have forced a confrontation with America over these fanatical settler zealots rather than seriously coordinate with the US on Iran (which is what Biden was in Israel for).
I can't help but think of the Buffalo Springfield lyrics: "There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."
That is how I feel about Vice President Joseph Biden's just-concluded visit to Israel. I can't understand what the Israelis were thinking.
First, it occurs to me that the Israelis may not be as worried about Iran's nuclear development as they say they are.
They say it is an existential threat, one that poses the possibility of the total destruction of Israel.
But, if they really believed that, would they have sabotaged a summit with Vice President Biden designed to coordinate actions to deter an Iranian bomb? Would they have blown up the summit over settlements?
Because that is what they did and it indicates that the Iranian threat may be less important to the Netanyahu government than keeping the settlers happy, even at the price of disrupting joint US-Israeli efforts to counter Iran.
And that suggests Israelis are not quite as fearful of an Iranian bomb as they say. Or they already know how to deter it. Or they have decided they can live with it (after all, Israel has 200 nuclear bombs with land, sea and air delivery systems).
Biden's visit had two purposes.
The first was to make sure that the United States and Israel are on the same page on Iran
In the waning days of the Bush administration, at the behest of the Israelis, Vice President Dick Cheney went to President George W. Bush and asked that Bush permit them to bomb Iran before handing the keys of the White House over to President-elect Barack Obama.
Bush said no. Like his successor, he understood that if the US allowed Israel to attack Iran, it would have the same effect as us doing it ourselves, giving the impression we were attacking the third Muslim country since 2001.
American interests throughout the Middle East would be put in immediate jeopardy. Most significantly, our uniformed men and women in Afghanistan and Iraq would come under intense, even deadly, pressure from an enraged Muslim population.
Even worse, a military attack on Iran could lead to a major war, even nuclear war. Very likely, Hezbollah would launch thousands of missiles at northern Israel, forcing its population to flee. And the two Arab states that have signed treaties with Israel -- Jordan and Egypt -- would come under strong pressure from much of their respective populations to tear them up.
The mother of all disasters.
Bush wasn't having it. And neither will President Obama.
The Israelis know that and now insist, at the very least, that the United States lead the battle for what they call "crippling sanctions" on Iran.
Biden came to Israel to work out a common sanctions strategy, and to reassure the Israeli government that the United States would not abandon it should the Iranian nuclear threat actually develop.
But the administration also wanted to re-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because President Obama believes that continuation of the conflict, and the perception in the Muslim world that the United States and Israel are joined at the hip, harms America's interests worldwide. He's right.
In Cairo, last spring, Obama called for the immediate resumption of negotiations. He called for the Palestinians to recognize Israel's right to peace and security and he called on Israel to freeze settlements.
The Palestinian Authority has not engaged in violence for years. But Prime Minister Netanyahu would not accept a settlement freeze that included Arab East Jerusalem. And that is precisely where most of the settlement expansion is taking place, as Palestinians are being forced out of their homes to make way for settlers.
Also, what Israel calls Jerusalem includes a chunk of the West Bank. When Israel annexed Jerusalem after the 1967 war, it tripled its size by fiat so that Palestinian areas -- areas never considered part of Jerusalem -- were magically transformed into neighborhoods in the holy city.
The United States has never recognized these areas -- or any part of East Jerusalem -- as part of Israel. And neither does any country other than Israel.
Netanyahu's refusal to accept Obama's settlement freeze killed off any chance for Israeli-Palestinian talks.
And that was it until Biden embarked on his visit to Israel and announced, after much staff groundwork, that indirect negotiations would start with the President's Special Envoy, George Mitchell, mediating.
The resumption of US-brokered negotiations would represent a significant success for the United States because progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is intrinsically good, and also because continuation of the conflict -- with the US backing the Netanyahu government to the hilt -- is a huge Iranian asset as it tries to build support throughout the Muslim world.
And then the roof caved in.
First, all was rosy. At a joint public session Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu heaped praise on each other. Netanyahu said, and it's true, that there is virtually no American politician more devoted to Israel than Joe Biden. And Biden, not unfamiliar with blarney, said that Netanyahu has taken great risks for peace.
The US-Israeli relationship was sailing along, all winks and smiles while the Palestinians smarted in the knowledge that this was the "same old, same old."
Only then the Netanyahu government seemed to totally lose it.
With Biden right there, it announced that the government had approved plans for 1,600 new housing units for settlers. And, within hours, the 1,600 became 50,000 new settler units. All in Arab East Jerusalem.
The triumphant Biden trip was triumphant no more. Suddenly the Vice President looked like he was set up, like a sucker (or "freier," to use the Israeli term for the easily duped).
Biden was furious. According to Yedioth Achronoth, he told the Israelis: "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
All this led to an unprecedented US condemnation of Israel's behavior. Speaking of his immediate reaction to Israel's plan to expand settlements, Biden later said, "I, at the request of President Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally." Speaking at the White House, Robert Gibbs also condemned the Israeli plans.
In response, Netanyahu made clear that he wasn't changing a thing. His Deputy Foreign Minister said there would be "no more concessions." No more?
And that is where we are today. The US-Israeli relationship is in crisis, a crisis brought on by the settlements, which have become Israel's curse from hell.
The good news is that not all crises are bad; some are the necessary prelude to recovery.
Biden put it like this in a speech before students at Tel Aviv University. After restating his condemnation of the settlements (which was cheered by the students), he said this:
"...sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth...."
And that truth is that the United States, at long last, must "hold both sides accountable for any statements or any actions that inflame tensions or prejudice the outcome of these talks...."
He then stated unambiguously that America intends to reconcile "the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the '67 lines...and Israel's goal of a Jewish state with secure and recognized borders...."
The amazing thing is that this goal is closer today than it was before Biden's trip.
That is because, for the first time in memory, the United States flat-out condemned Israel's embrace of the settlement enterprise. The administration condemnation was issued without regard to the viability of Netanyahu's right-wing coalition or the uproar that would be instigated by the lobby and its allies in Congress. Biden also stated, to an Israeli audience, that the Palestinian state must be viable, contiguous, and would encompass the territories won during the '67 war. And he indicated unprecedented support for Palestinian aspirations, on an equal par with Israel's security.
Hopefully, the administration will dig in and not flinch despite the screams of protest from the usual suspects. The President should recall the old saying, "the dogs bark but the caravan moves on."
The alternative is for America to again be seen worldwide as the tail on Netanyahu's dog, for Iran to be strengthened at the expense of the United States, and for Israel to sacrifice its own security as a nation for the sake of an onerous occupation that cannot and must not be sustained.
The Obama administration did itself proud in Jerusalem this week. But now comes the orchestrated pushback. (The AIPAC conference takes place in Washington in a few days and it will rally support for Netanyahu's plans, not Obama's). Count on the House liberals to lead the charge!
It's up to us to let the President and Vice President know that most Americans -- including Israel's strongest friends -- have their back.
Mr. President, ignore the noise. Speak for America.