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(Full disclosure: The writer was invited to Washington by AIPAC to speak in front of the lobby's members.)

WASHINGTON - Perhaps the tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama isn't personal but partisan, in the words of a member of Bill Clinton's White House administration. He suggests that the problem isn't that Netanyahu is a "Likudnik," but that, at his core, he is a Republican.

Half-joking and half-serious, the official explained to me that when one hears Netanyahu's creed about economic affairs, it's like listening to a conservative Republican senator. That - maybe - explains the tension between the two leaders. Perhaps now that Obama has succeeded in passing his health care reform bill, his attitude toward the conservative Republican from the State of Israel might be more forgiving.

There were about 8,000 people at the festive AIPAC banquet hall on Monday night - the largest-ever audience to attend the lobby's annual policy conference. Some even say that Washington's basketball team, the Wizards, draws a smaller crowd. But we aren't talking about a right-wing or Republican audience, as it is painted by many, but a diverse group with varied views. Some are diehard fans of the Obama administration, while others are fierce opponents; the same can be said for audience members' views on Israel's settlement policy.

In recent days, another several hundred people signed up for the AIPAC conference; the large number of attendees could be due to the recent feeling of a crisis between Israel and the U.S., or down to the fact that left-wing lobby J Street has closed ranks and is actively urging people to attend. The probable cause for the increased attendance is the growing concern over the fact that Iranian nuclear project is likely to reach the point of no return by the end of this year or early 2011. These concerns were expressed in two of the speeches on Monday night, those of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and his Democratic colleague Charles Schumer from New York. Both effectively adopted the Israeli narrative that the Iranian nuclear threat could lead to a second Holocaust, and both ended their speeches with an emotive "never again."

And then "senator" Bibi arrived on the scene. Unsurprisingly, his speech included every possible cliche: Death camps, his military service in an elite IDF combat unit, the relentless persecution the Jewish people have suffered throughout history, the powerful bond between the Jews and the land of Israel and, of course, Jerusalem.

On the eve of his White House meeting with Obama, Netanyahu chose to follow in the footsteps of his historian father by giving the U.S. administration a modest lesson ("just a five-minute drive from the Knesset"...) in the history and geography of the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

Far from being a conciliatory effort, Netanyahu's speech was riddled with borderline provocation. The problem here is not Netanyahu's statements on the East Jerusalem neighborhoods - even the senior Palestinian Authority leadership understand that these areas will remain under Israeli sovereignty in the future - but the fact that he did not present a real vision for peace or compromise.

To demand Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state while stating that any future peace accord will include an Israeli military presence along the eastern border is not much of a vision.

Although the fact that he did not go beyond the mention of a "military presence" is a novelty in itself, there was still something missing from the speech, particularly its uninspiring conclusion, which left the audience rather unmoved.

And while our prime minister is reminiscent of a Republican, the manner in which the White House is conducting its Middle East policy suggests that it too has been "Israelized." More than a few U.S. analysts and former government officials - and not just from the Bush era - share the opinion that the Obama administration has no clear policy and strategy for tackling the Israeli-Arab conflict. The administration adopts an unrealistic policy (the settlement freeze) and drops it after a few months only to return to it later (demanding the construction freeze in East Jerusalem).

There doesn't appear to be anyone in charge. It's true that George Mitchell leads many parts of the process, but the return of Dennis Ross to the mix testifies to the administration perception of its envoy's work thus far. Ross and Netanyahu adviser Yitzhak Molcho are actually the ones to ease the tensions between Washington and Jerusalem last week. There are also more than a few others who are responsible for Washington's aggressive stance toward Israel, among them National Security Council member and Mitchell aide Mara Rudman (who some in Washington call "our Avigdor Lieberman") and Obama's National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.

The harsher tone, analysts say, stems not from the decision to build in Ramat Shlomo, but because Netanyahu broke an earlier pledge to improve governmental oversight in order to prevent the Interior Ministry coming out with announcements of the kind that sparked this crisis.

Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that even a hawkish Republican like Benjamin Netanyahu can be repeatedly be guilty of the sin of "Israeliness."

Posted by Avi Issacharoff, March 23, 2010

Previous MESS Report posts:

  • America's Mideast woes don't begin and end with Israel
  • U.S. anger over East Jerusalem row is excessive
  • Palestinians aren't missing the chance to fan the flames
  • Mubarak, Egypt regime change and Israel
  • Palestinian police chief knows 'the secret of the correct use of force'