Are Israel and America Heading for a Blowup?

News outlets are atwitter over a series of actions and gestures on the part of American and Israeli leaders that may presage an upcoming clash between the two nations. This may herald problems for the nation of Israel as she confronts a range of adversaries on her borders -- and a particularly lethal one not on her borders but a mere missile ride away: Iran.

What can we tell from the fog of diplomacy?

The advent of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has prompted concerns in some quarters (and celebrations in others) that Israeli and American policy will not be so closely aligned as they were over the past eight years. Netanyahu has a reputation as a hawk, though he is not nearly as hawkish as some may assume.

For instance, he supported previous accords (the Wye Accords) reached between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, when he previously served as prime minister of Israel he clashed with President Clinton over his outreach towards the Palestinians and the perceived pressure he felt from the Washington to "get with the program." Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a long memory; there is a history here and it is one marred by disagreements.

The potential pitfalls include the issue of settlements (which Netanyahu's Likud Party has promoted in the past) and the commitment to a two-state solution. Netanyahu has downplayed the latter, preferring to focus on Israeli security, improving the  Palestinian economy, and preparing Palestinian society to accept peace with Israel.

Netanyahu was compelled to accept, as the price of his prime ministership, Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister (Lieberman controlled enough votes in the Knesset  to give the nod to Netanyahu). Lieberman is a controversial right-wing figure who, among other steps, has called for loyalty oaths from Israel's Arab citizens. As foreign minister, he has stated that he does not believe that Israel is bound by the 2007 Annapolis Accords formulated under the auspices of President George Bush since these were never ratified by Israel. The Annapolis Accords contemplated the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Lieberman has said that he does support the 2002 road map agreed to both by the Israelis and the Palestinians. That consisted of a series of steps by both parties that needed to be fulfilled before a Palestinian state could be established. The Annapolis Accords, in contrast, seemed to minimize the importance of these steps. Such a big bang approach seems to be a habit that American presidents are wont to promote as they end their terms. They have a record of failure.

It should noted that the diplomatic problems caused by Lieberman may be resolved legally. He is being investigated by Israeli legal authorities over bribery and money laundering allegations. His exit may be imminent. Some might perceive this as a deues ex machina: Netanyahu retains Lieberman's support without the need to have him in the cabinet. Certainly such a step would be welcomed by many in the international community. His replacement by Tzipi Livni, who previously served in this role, would be greeted positively by diplomats around the world as she has a softer approach towards the Palestinians.

As the shape of Israel's cabinet took shape, the Obama administration reacted with calibrated steps that seemed to be sending a message to the Israelis that they may face a chillier reception in Washington than they have in the past.