When Benjamin Netanyahu humiliated U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden two weeks ago with his settlements announcement it was just one more calculated effort to both expose Barack Obama as a weak president and to increase Netanyahu's own geo-political power. Unfortunately for the Middle East, Obama, and the world in general, the brinkmanship seemed to work. The immediate U.S. response to this deliberate humiliation was half-hearted, weak and confused. The balance of power within the U.S.-Israeli alliance appeared to shift overnight. Obama is the classic ditherer -- faced with someone bold and daring, he simply can't find the moral outrage or courage to stand up for his principles.
The one certain victim of this Israeli move, if left in place, is the peace Obama says he wants. By announcing the building of 1,600 new units of Israeli housing in Jerusalem, Netanyahu deliberately picked the one issue that he and everyone else involved knew was a deal-breaker: more "facts on the ground" in the city Palestinians have always insisted will be the capital of their independent state.
Mahmoud Abbas has literally no room to maneuver and cannot enter the so-called "proximity talks" so long as Israel refuses to reverse itself. (The fact that they are called "proximity" talks reveals how fragile they are: Abbas could not be seen to be talking to the Israelis directly.)
But the other casualty here is the increased likelihood that Israel will see Obama's weakness as a green light to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. In the larger scheme of things, this has graver implications than the continued floundering of the two-state solution (a solution which was on life support even before the Jerusalem issue exploded).
There is no independent analysis that suggests an attack on Iran would be anything other than a disaster for stability in the Middle East, for U.S. foreign policy and, for that matter, Israel.
Even senior generals in the U.S. military are extremely worried about an Israeli attack -- and about Israel's conclusion that Obama is too weak and indecisive to be a barrier to its ultimate plan. The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who played a key role during the Bush administration in stopping Israel's plan to take out Iran's nuclear facilities, is even more worried now than he was under Bush. He came back from an early March meeting with Israeli leaders fearing that even his toughest language did not persuade them.
He told the Israeli public that an attack on Iran would be "a big, big, big problem for all of us, and I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences." He followed up with a news conference in Washington, stating: "I worry a lot about the unintended consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the levers first pulled."
If Mullen was trying to force Obama to have some backbone it didn't seem to be working. Obama was seen as too weak domestically to truly confront Israel and invite the wrath of AIPAC, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful U.S.-Israeli lobby.
The unintended consequences that Mullen worries about are myriad. Some responses are totally predictable. Iran would almost certainly fire its long-range missiles with conventional warheads at Israeli cities. It could very quickly make a complete mess of the fragile calm that now exists in Iraq, ruining US plans to extricate itself from a war that is draining its coffers. Iran could also create problems in the Afghanistan war, which it has been willing to stay out of due its own dislike of the Taliban. That distaste could evaporate overnight -- especially if the U.S. assisted the attack in any way.
Indeed, even an Israeli war-game exercise based on an attack on Iran shocked its own designers and the Israeli intelligence agencies. The academic study by Professor Moshe Vered of Bar Ilan University looked at what might cause a conflict, how long it would go on and its final likely outcome. Vered warned: "The war could be long, its length could be measured in years."
How might the post-bombing play out? "The means that may be most effective for the Iranians is war by proxies: Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. [There will be] ongoing and massive rocket fire [and in the Syrian case, also various types of Scud missiles], which will cover most of the area of the country, disrupt the course of everyday life and cause casualties and property damage. The effect of such fire will greatly increase if the enemy fires chemical, biological or radiological ordnance... massive Iranian support, by money and weapons, will help the organizations [Hizbullah and Hamas] continue the fire over a period of indeterminate length..."
Add to the military consequences for the U.S. and Israel the almost certain skyrocketing of oil prices, and you have the makings of a genuine global disaster in the making.
Netanyahu gave every indication that he wasn't listening to Mullen or anyone else, indeed in Israel he came as close as any Israeli leader ever has to expressing contempt for a U.S. president.
But something happened in the meantime that might turn out to be the biggest shift ever in U.S. policy towards Israel. Obama did not fold entirely after all. But it wasn't about Iran -- it was about the Palestinians. It seems that Netanyahu may have crossed an invisible line. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually delivered an ultimatum to the Israeli government: stop all settlement activity, including cancelling the 1,600 new units for Jerusalem and genuinely negotiate on all the key issues in the conflict, including the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem be their capital.
Where did the ultimatum come from, on the part of a president who dislikes confrontation and is at near record lows in the polls? According to Uri Avnery, one of the most prominent political writers in Israel, the line Netanyahu crossed was the one that had always equated Israeli interests with U.S. interests.
Avnery looked at the testimony of General David Petraeus, the man in charge of all the Middle East (except Israel and Palestine), to the U.S. Congress's Armed Services Committee. Patraeus is perhaps the smartest general in the army and the most popular. He told the Committee: "The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [region]...The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the [region] and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support. The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizballah and Hamas."
Avnery believes that the meaning of this statement is more significant than it might seem. Patraeus wasn't just saying Israeli interests are not identical to U.S. interests, he was saying they are now putting the U.S. (and its soldiers) at risk. Avnery speculates that if this interpretation of Netanyahu's brinkmanship becomes the public position of the Obama administration, even AIPAC and American Jews supporting Israel could be quieted: "The Damocles Sword of suspicion of disloyalty hangs above their heads. For them, this is the ultimate nightmare: to be accused of putting the security of Israel ahead of the security of the U.S."
It could still come to nothing. On March 21, Netanyahu repeated that he will not reverse his settlement decision. The next few weeks will tell the story.
As for an Israeli attack on Iran -- that, at least, seems to have been forced to the back burner for now. But a larger question looms: will the U.S. do it instead?
Next: Is the U.S. preparing to attack Iran?
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