Against the backdrop of Israel's announcement – during the U.S. Vice President's recent visit – that it is set to build new settlements in East Jerusalem, the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has entered the stage of breaking bones. The Americans considered this announcement to be a challenge and an insult to them, something which prompted Hillary Clinton to convey Obama's anger to Netanyahu in a stormy telephone call.
The Israelis are monitoring the situation; at the governmental level Netanyahu has ordered cabinet members to remain silent and not exacerbate the crisis with Washington, which Michael Oren, Israel's Ambassador in Washington, described as the worst crisis in the bilateral relationship between the two countries since 1975. As for the Israeli media, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper wrote that "the crisis between the Israel and the U.S. that we have been expecting since Netanyahu took office has arisen." The Haaretz newspaper added "the moment of truth has come for Netanyahu who will have to choose between his ideological beliefs and his alliance with the right and the need to maintain Washington's support."
Netanyahu, who returned to escalate tensions with Washington, advised journalists "not to get carried away and to calm down" and those close to Netanyahu say that he was "surprised" by the U.S. response. In addition to this, a source familiar with Washington told me that the reason for his surprise was that he received this rebuke from Hillary Clinton, rather than Obama. This is surprising because Hillary Clinton is much appreciated in Israel right now, in contrast to Obama. The Israeli dislike of Obama is no secret, and there was great expectation during the first meeting between Obama and Netanyahu at the White House in May 2009. My sources told me that following this meeting Netanyahu believed that he could circumvent Obama through the use of Israel's friends in the Senate, and was surprised when Obama told him the same thing about the necessity of initiating negotiations and halting settlement construction.
Here my source tells me that the White House believed that Netanyahu's government was too weak to stand up to Washington's pressure, but the surprise – according to my source – is that it was Obama who weakened. The source added that the smartest thing that Netanyahu did was to play the waiting game while domestic problems weakened Obama.
Therefore today we are facing a heavyweight political confrontation between Obama who is bound by domestic issues and Netanyahu who is afraid of a political earthquake that will collapse his government for the first time, after former US President Bill Clinton collapsed the first Netanyahu government. Therefore we are at a cross-roads, and as an Arab diplomat informed me "Netanyahu wants to abandon Obama's initiatives, attack his credibility, and exploit the internal US situation…therefore we are at a genuine cross-roads, for how would the US deal with Iran, for example, in the event of Obama's credibility being affected?"
Netanyahu knows his opponent well, and famed US writer and journalist David Ignatius recalled an interesting incident in his 20 May 2009 article in the Washington Post when Netanyahu met Obama in 2007 and told one of his aides "I think this is the next president of the United States." The question today is; will Netanyahu hold firm, or will his government collapse for the second time at the hands of the U.S., or will Obama's injuries increase resulting in the region entering another dangerous cycle [of violence]?
*Published in the London-based ASHARQ ALAWSAT on March 16, 2010.