This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Here's the question no one is asking as 2012 ends, especially given the effusive public support the Obama administration offered Israel in its recent conflict with Hamas in Gaza: Will 2013 be a year of confrontation between Washington and Jerusalem? It's on no one's agenda for the New Year. But it could happen anyway.
It's true that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process appears dead in the water. No matter how much Barack Obama might have wanted that prize, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rebuffed him at every turn. The president appears to have taken it on the chin, offering more than the usual support for Israel and in return getting kloom (as they say in Hebrew). Nothing at all.
However, the operative word here is "appears." In foreign affairs what you see—a show carefully scripted for political purposes—often bears little relation to what you actually get.
While the Obama administration has acceded to the imagery of knee-jerk support for whatever Israel does, no matter how outrageous, behind the scenes its policies are beginning to look far less predictable. In fact, unlikely as it may seem, a showdown could be brewing between the two countries. If so, the outcome will depend on a complicated interplay between private diplomacy and public theater.
The latest well-masked US intervention came in the brief November war between Israel and Gaza. It began when Israel assassinated a top Hamas leader deeply involved in secret truce talks between the supposedly non-communicating foes.
Destructive as it was, the war proved brief indeed for one reason: the American president quickly stepped in. Publicly, he couldn't have sided more wholeheartedly with Israel. (It felt as if Mitt Romney had won, not lost, the election.) In private, though, as he pressured Egyptian President Morsi to force Hamas to a truce, he reportedly pushed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just as hard.
The truce agreement even had an Obama-required twist. It forced Israel to continue negotiating seriously with Hamas about easing the blockade that, combined with repeated destructive Israeli strikes against the Palestinian infrastructure, has plunged Gaza so deep into poverty and misery. Talks on the blockade are reportedly proceeding, though wrapped in the deepest secrecy. It's hard to imagine Israel upholding the truce and entering into a real dialogue to ease the blockade without significant pressure from Washington.
Washington is also deeply involved in the tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (P.A.) in the West Bank. When P.A. president Mahmoud Abbas asked the U.N. General Assembly to accord Palestine observer status, Israel publicly denounced any such U.N. resolution. The Obama administration wanted to offer a far softer resolution of its own with Israeli approval. The Israelis gave in and sent a top official to Washington to negotiate the language.
In the end, the US had no success; the stronger resolution passed overwhelmingly. Israel promptly retaliated by announcing that it would build 3,000 additional housing units in various settlements on the West Bank. To make the response stronger, the Israeli government indicated that it would also make "preliminary zoning and planning preparations" for new Israeli settlements in the most contentious area of the West Bank, known as E1. Settlements there would virtually bisect the West Bank and complete a Jewish encirclement of Jerusalem, ending any hope for a two-state solution.
Washington Can Lay Down the Law
There is a history of the Israeli government publicly announcing settlement expansions for symbolic political effect, and then, under US pressure, pursuing only limited construction or none at all. Some observers suspect Netanyahu is now playing the same game.
As the New York Times reported, "For years, American and European officials have told the Israelis that E1 is a red line. The leaked, somewhat vague, announcement… is a potent threat that may well, in the end, not be carried out because the Israeli government worries about its consequences." Prominent Israeli columnist Shimon Shiffer was more certain. "Netanyahu," he wrote, "does not plan to change the policies of his predecessors, who assured the Americans Israel would not build even one house in problematic areas" like E1.
Maybe that's why Netanyahu sounded so tentative on the subject in an interview: "What we've advanced so far is only planning [in E1], and we will have to see. We shall act further based on what the Palestinians do." Israeli officials admitted to the New York Times that the move on E1 was "symbolism against symbolism."
But several European nations took the E1 threat seriously and responded with unusually sharp criticism. Some Israeli insiders claimed that Obama's hidden hand was at work here, too. The American president, they speculated, gave the Europeans "the green light to respond with extreme measures... The European move is essentially an American move." If so, it was all done in private, of course. (The White House publicly denied the claim.)
However Peter Beinart, editor of the Open Zion page at the Daily Beast and author of The Crisis of Zionism, claims administration officials have told him that such behind-the-scenes maneuvering is Obama's new strategy. Publicly, Washington will "stand back and let the rest of the world do the confronting. Once the US stops trying to save Israel from the consequences of its actions, the logic goes, and once Israel feels the full brunt of its mounting international isolation, its leaders will be scared into changing course."
As Beinart suggests, international isolation is what worries Israelis most. A cut-off of US military aid would be troubling indeed but in itself hardly fatal, since Israel already has the strongest military in the Middle East and a sizeable military-industrial-high-tech complex of its own.
What Israel needs, above all, from the US is diplomatic support to protect it from international rejection, economic boycotts, and a diplomatic tsunami that could turn Israel into a pariah state. Political analysts have long assumed that any Israeli leader who loses the protection of the US would pay the price at the polls.
That's why some insiders, like Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, think Obama can "lay down the law" to Israel on E1—behind closed doors, of course. The influential Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer puts the situation in the simplest of terms: "It is clear who is boss."
Obama's New Diplomatic Weapon
The rules of Israel's political game, however, may also be changing. And that's a key to understanding why 2013 could be the year of confrontation between the leaderships of the two countries. Netanyahu has allied his Likud party with the strongest party to its right, Yisrael Beitenu. To seal his victory in the upcoming election on January 22nd, he's put his political fate in the hands (or talons) of his country's hawks.