There's More to U.S.-Israel Crisis Than Netanyahu vs. Obama

If Obama is serious about advancing the peace process, he may have to make a substitution of his own.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened the forum of seven senior ministers Wednesday for another round of marathon deliberations over his visit to Washington next week for the AIPAC conference.

Netanyhau finds himself in an awkward position: The American Mideast envoy George Mitchell is apparently delaying his visit to Israel, and President Barack Obama has hinted that the he wants the head of Interior Minister Eli Yishai. These are good reasons for a few more comments on the only game in town at the moment - the crisis in Israel's relationship with the U.S.

The current upset is not solely the result of the antipathy between Netanyahu and Obama. While it is true that Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, Netanyau's predecessors, benefited from an excellent personal relationship with then-U.S. president George W. Bush, they also had other advantages.

Over the years Israel has utilized the skills of officials with a direct line to the White House. 0For example, Dov Weisglass had Condoleezza Rice; Yoram Turbowitz had Steven Hadley. When our leaders' actions stalled the diplomatic process, there was always a diligent aide around to step in and set the gears back into motion. In Netanyahu's bureau there is no such person.

Although he surrounds himself with American expatriates (with whom, according to testimonies, he prefers to engage in English), the current prime minister has no real point man with Obama. The most effective relationship between the two countries is currently within the military echelons, between IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen, but that channel is designated for military coordination, not understandings about construction in Jerusalem.

Two days ago, Haaretz quoted David Makovsky of the Washington Institute, who suggested that Netanyahu rid himself of Yishai over the diplomatic crisis he instigated by approving the construction in Jerusalem's Ramat Shlomo neighborhood. Now it turns out that we were being used as a weather balloon: Obama on Wednesday night slammed Yishai for damaging the peace process. On Thursday morning, according to reports, the Americans hinted to Netanyahu that he must dismiss his interior minister.

These actions reveal a lack of understanding about Israeli politics. With Avigdor Lieberman and the Likud rebels breathing down his neck, Netanyahu can ill afford to alienate more political allies. Chances are he will even evade a direct U.S. request for Yishal's dismissal.

What is the Obama administration's next planned step? To oust Netanyahu from office? True, one could credit then-U.S. secretary of state James Baker with ending Yitzhak Shamir's Likud government in the 1992 elections via the loan guarantees crisis, but it is doubtful whether a maneuver like this could work a second time.

In recent days, the American and Israeli media have repeatedly quoted the musings of U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of CENTCOM, who reportedly warned his superiors and the U.S. administration that the freeze in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and America's support for Israel are endangering broader U.S. interests in the region. It turns out that Israel is indirectly responsible for bombs in Kandahar and Baghdad.

This is an old claim, and one that has some support within the U.S. administration, but despite U.S. reports to the contrary, it never came up in the recent round of talks between Mullen and the Israeli defense chiefs, which were apparently solely devoted to Iranian threat and the efforts to curb Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Mitchell is an accomplished man who has at least one historical achievement to his credit: a central role in formulating the Good Friday agreement that ended the violence in Northern Ireland. But with all due respect, it must be noted that his achievements in the Mideast have fallen well short of his European accomplishments. It would appear that Mitchell perceives his role as that of a messenger relaying bridging proposals from one side to the other.

At the moment, because of the Ramat Shlomo fiasco, the Palestinians are refusing to even sit in the same room as Netanyahu's people. If Obama is serious about advancing the process, he may well have to make a substitution of his own - and replace his Mideast envoy with someone more charismatic.

Posted by Amos Harel on March 18, 2010

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