Bibi, Barack and the Big Chill
03/24/2010 - 18:04
James Besser

 Okay, I confess, I missed the AIPAC policy conference this week, the first I haven't attended as a reporter in 23 years. But it's okay, I had a note from my editor because I was working on the new Jewish Week Web site, which you're now reading and I hope you're liking.

But you didn't need to be on the floor of the Washington Convention Center to know there's something afoot in the U.S.-ISrael relationship that worries the leaders of mainstream pro-ISrael groups and has given new hope to groups that favor a more robust U.S. peacemaking effort in the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently didn't “cave in” to U.S. pressure, as many wrote in advance of his trip here to address AIPAC and meet at the White House, and today's papers are filled with post-mortems of an icy Netanyahu-Obama session that didn't include any of the usual trappings of White House summits (some of the best: the Washington Post , Politico and the New York Times  ).

Some Jewish leaders see a deliberate distancing from the Jewish state and an erosion of the view that Israel is an important strategic asset to the United States; that was the gist of a Jewish Week story today.

But there are a lots of question marks here.

It's hard to deny that a chill is setting in between two leaders who clearly are not on the same page when it comes to the peace process; numerous sources describe a high level of distrust of Netanyahu inside the White House.

Much less clear is what that will mean in terms of U.S. policy.

One thing Bibi demonstrated this week: he isn't going to be swayed from what he believes, or what he sees as a political necessity because of his right-wing coalition, by the threat of cooler ties with Washington. That was clearly the administration's intent in the tumultuous week before his visit, and it didn't work.

If the distancing strategy doesn't work, what other leverage does the Obama administration have?

It's hard to picture the White House trying to use foreign aid as a cudgel; that would touch off a tsunami of opposition in Congress, the last thing the administration needs at this point.

The administration could put put the brakes on some U.S.-Israeli military programs without making a public fuss, but given Israel's preeminent military position in the region, I don't that's going to scare Netanyahu, and I doubt the president wants to face charges that he's threatening Israel's security – which is what the Republicans would eagerly claim.

There's been a lot of talk that what the administration really wants is a kind of regime change in which U.S. diplomatic pressure forces Netanyahu to dissolve his government and form a coalition government with Kadima and Labor.

No doubt that's what officials here long for.

But there are plenty of people in this administration who understand the huge risks of meddling in Israeli politics. And that tactic seems based on the premise that Netanyahu would like to move ahead in peace negotiations with the Palestinians, but is being restrained by this right-wing cabinet. But all indications suggest that the issue is Netanyahu himself; he simply doesn't agree with the direction the Obama administration is taking, coalition considerations aside.

My best guess at this stage: a slow dialing down of the temperature in U.S.-Israel relations, with the administration fervently hoping Netanyahu gives them enough that they can turn the thermostat back up. Given where things stand today – with still more announcements of East Jerusalem building projects – I can't see the administration backing down. But I also don't think they're eager for a full-fledged confrontation with Israel, especially in this election year.

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