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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.

A telling moment occurred in Turkey when President Obama spoke before its parliament. He stated that America is committed to previous understandings reached between the parties. He also specifically mentioned Annapolis and a two-state solution. He thereby rebuked Lieberman’s opinion regarding Annapolis and Netanyahu’s views about the need to rush towards the establishment of a Palestinian state. But he also mentioned the road map — a fact that escaped the attention of many commentators — and said that Israel’s security concerns are legitimate.

What other tea leaves can be read?

George Mitchell is the special envoy to the Middle East. He also has a direct line to President Obama. He does not have to go through the State Department to have his views mediated or altered. In the past, Mitchell served in the same role for Bill Clinton. When his team issued its report, it focused on Israeli settlements as being a roadblock to peace. The report advocated a total freeze, including natural growth.

This will be a serious bone of contention between the Obama administration and the new Israeli leadership. Eliot Abrams, who served in George W. Bush’s administration, telegraphed as much in this recent Washington Post op-ed. He also refuted some of the arguments that have been made that blame Israeli settlements for the violence in the region

Iran will also be a problem — as it has been for years. This year will be different, though. A more muscular approach towards Iran’s nuclear program has long been advocated by Netanyahu, and now he has the power to turn those opinions into actions. The Obama team prefers negotiations and outreach over threats and military action. Indeed, in the past week, America has agreed to join with the European Union in face-to-face talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program.

A discordant note has been injected into the equation. The Obama team has reportedly approached members of Congress, warning them that a clash is coming and implying that the administration is depending on congressional Democrats to support the administration’s approach. This is an unprecedented action on the part of the president. Apparently, pre-emption in this area is one policy that Barack Obama supports.

Almost in tandem with this move, Vice President Joe Biden laid down a marker, warning Israel away in a CNN interview from any sort of military action against Iran. America, as Israel’s most stalwart supporter, has great leverage over Israel, which is enhanced by American control over the Iraqi airspace that Israeli planes would have to transverse on their way to attacking Iranian nuclear installations.

What we are witnessing is a ritual that occurs on the international stage quite often: Two recently empowered leaders are developing the contours of a relationship. There are parameters, boundaries, red lines, and agreements that will unfold in the days ahead. Netanyahu will find the words and formulas that will work to assuage the concerns of Barack Obama that he will be too hawkish towards the Palestinians — perhaps agreeing to a freeze on settlement activity. That would be a goodwill gesture on his part. In return, Netanyahu might very well paste on a happy face regarding the Obama’s team outreach towards the Iranians but behind closed doors advocate that a time limit be placed on these negotiations, pointing out that interminable negotiations have previously resulted in no slowing of Iran’s nuclear program.

This week, Jews are celebrating Passover to commemorate their ancestors escape from Egyptian slavery.

Barack Obama will host the first seder ever held in the White House. Some may see this as a cynical move to warm up Jews in the face of disagreements ahead. Perhaps so. Symbolism over substance is a political fact of life. Whether this is the goal or not, it might behoove the celebrants at the seder to inform President Obama of a different Jewish holiday. The Purim holiday celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the Persian leader Haman’s plot to annihilate them. Persia is the ancient name of today’s Iran.

President Obama may have the power to make history come alive by rescuing half of the world’s Jews from an Iranian regime that is again bent on bringing about a Holocaust.