Might Obama Gamble on a New Netanyahu Peace Plan?

Is there any reason to believe that the Obama administration will gamble precious political and diplomatic capital on a new Israeli initiative?

You needn't be an optometrist to see that Israel has a vision problem. We have become a nation whose only vision is peripheral.

The surest symptom: Avoidance of looking straight ahead. Where the future is. And it's easy enough to see why. The view to the side is bad enough. The prime minister glances to his left and sees the United States, Israel's allies in Europe, and the world community as a whole, biding their time, glowering, checking their watches, counting off the half-year before a unilateral Palestinian declaration of statehood. Then the peripheral vision shifts to the right and picks up Avigdor Lieberman coveting the prime minister's chair and the hardline flank of his constituency.

Obama and Netanyahu at the White House on September 1, 2010. AP

Nonetheless, work continues on a new, perhaps a final, Netanyahu peace initiative. Rumor has it, that it could be launched at a joint session of Congress in May. But is there any reason to believe that the Obama administration - whose past tunnel vision on the Mideast, coupled with Israel's peripheral view, has blinded both sides to possible avenues of progress - will gamble precious political and diplomatic capital on a new Israeli initiative?

There is.

It comes down to Netanyahu. Until now his behavior has seemed a colossal shuck and jive show, masking an inability or a profound unwillingness to move on a peace deal. But now, in Israel, are the tables suddenly starting to turn? That is to say, are signs that for Obama, this time could prove a better bet?

Here are 10.

1. Changes in the Israeli Political Map.
A late February Yediot Ahronot-Dahaf poll showed that if elections were held now, and if former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri ran at the head of a new social affairs-based party, Kadima could supplant Netanyahu and form the next government with 62 to 65 seats in the 120-member Knesset.

At the same time, a Tel Aviv University opinion survey which has monitored public attitudes toward peace since 1994, found that while the majority of Israelis describe themselves as rightist, they have adopted the lion's share of the positions of the left as to a future accord with the Palestinians: recognition of 1967 lines as the basis of a border, with land exchanges allowing for incorporation of settlement blocs, and recognition of the concept of two states.

"The public, which in the main describes itself as rightist, believes that the greatest failure of this government is the nation's lack of success in reaching a peace agreement," said Prof. Ephraim Yaar, co-director of the Peace Index study. Although it agrees with the positions of the left, "The public prefers that the negotiations and an agreement be carried out by the right."

2. Netanyahu's inner cabinet is no longer meeting.
The prime minister has often used the Shvi'ya, the hardline-majority septet of senior ministers, as a firewall against diplomatic pressure and as a means of indirectly vetoing concessions on peace related issues.

Netanyahu has refrained from convening the Shvi'ya for an extended period, pumping speculation of a possible break to the left, ala Ariel Sharon.

3. Cracks on the Right.
As hardliners wait to see if Avigdor Lieberman is indicted on money laundering and other charges, an escalation of extremism on the part of some West Bank rabbis and settlement activists has driven wedges in the religious right over a wide range of issues - even over rabbinical support voiced for former president Moshe Katsav, following his conviction for rape.

Other issues include of questions of national authority and sovereignty versus rabbinical edict, specifically the use of force against Israeli soldiers and police sent to dismantle settlements and evict illegal settlers. Dov Wolpe, a radical rabbi, this week said that such security forces had become "the enemy," and advised that if troops fired riot-control weapons at settler activists, the activists should fire back.

4. Mounting International Isolation of Israel.
Washington's veto of a UN resolution declaring settlements illegal - a move taken at Israel's urging - quickly became the most conclusive proof of Israel's inability to persuade anyone - in particular, Washington - that settlement construction was of any positive value. In the process of voting against the word illegal, the United States put its full weight behind condemnation of settlements as illegitimate.

5. Cracks in Israel's Diplomatic Corps.
In a number of cases, most kept out of the public eye, career diplomats have complained that the Netanyahu-Lieberman-Yishai government's stance and actions over peace issues have become indefensible.

Most recently, respected veteran ambassador Ilan Baruch resigned from the foreign service, writing of his difficulty in explain leaders' statements and actions resisting moves toward peace and an end to occupation.

"A malignant dynamic has formed," Baruch wrote, "which threatens Israel's international stance and undermines its legitimacy - not just of the occupation - but of its very membership in the comity of nations."

Former Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Liel told Army Radio last week that at this point, "more than half" of Israel's career diplomats disagree with the government's actions, and that many feel that the government's policies are leading to unprecedented isolation and de-legitimization of Israel.

6. The Invisibility of the Territories.
The same geographical, physical, and emotional distance which has long allowed Israelis to ignore the reality of occupation as it applies to the Palestinians, now appears to extend also to the settlers, as recent confrontations with Israeli security forces illustrate.

There was scant mainstream Israeli response to the use of painful new riot control weaponry against settlers at the flashpoint Gilad farm outpost. And the apathetic Israeli public reaction to news that the government may take further against illegal outposts and the Hilltop Youth that drive them, bodes poorly for the settlement movement's expensive new advertising campaign.

7. Backlash, as the Price Tag policy is turned on Jews.
The Price Tag was originally a method of indirect revenge, targeting Palestinians for Israeli anti-settlement measures. Now, as radical pro-settler protests begin to target Jewish Israelis, blocking major intersections and highways in Israel proper, there are mounting signs of backlash and anger.

Meanwhile, demonstrations by pro-Kahane, overtly anti-Arab West Bank rightists in places like Jaffa have prompted Jewish and Arab Israelis to band together in anti-racism counter-demonstrations. Another sign of push-back against radical right "Jews-only housing" campaigns, has been the effort by the Tel Aviv municipality to support the building of affordable housing for Arab residents of Jaffa.

8. J Street and changes in the U.S. Jewish community.
Israeli rightists have long been hopeful that the U.S. Jewish community would turn conservative, pro-Republican, and therefore more pro-settlement and opposed to peace moves.

But young Jews continue to vote Democratic in large numbers, and fresh momentum for pro-Israel activism has been felt mostly on the left, with the arrival of a range of organizations both explicitly in favor of a strongly democratic Jewish state, and strongly anti-occupation and critical of current Israeli government actions: J Street, Americans for Peace Now, the New Israel Fund, Ameinu, Tikkun, Meretz USA, and many others.

9. Israel's boycott of American Jews is becoming untenable.
Official Israel can no longer afford to boycott, shun, and pretend to ignore the huge proportion of the North American Jewish community which wants to see a truly democratic Israel actively work for a future alongside an independent Palestinian state. Israel can no longer afford to have its ambassador in Washington pander to AIPAC and boycott J Street. Israel can ill afford to alienate and thus lose the support of much of the largest of all Diaspora Jewish communities.

10. Netanyahu himself has changed.
This is the man who once vociferously opposed the ideas of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. In recent statements, however, he has spoken of the specter of the alternative, the "disaster" of a bi-national state, in essence, the end of the state of Israel and of its importance to Jewish peoplehood and culture.

It has become his choice to make.