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The Timing Is Ripe for Obama to Make Demands on Israel to Settle for Peace

Obama is in a better position than any president in decades to insist that Israelis agree to an independent Palestinian state. And we need to speak up with him.

Crisis in U.S.-Israel relations? What crisis? That’s the public pose of the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

So what if right-wingers in his government announced 1,600 new units to be built in East Jerusalem, intentionally sabotaging the peace talks with Palestinians about to begin under U.S. auspices? So what if they did it while Vice-President Joe Biden was in their country on a friendship mission, publicly humiliating him?

So what if Netanyahu dismissed the whole affair as "an unfortunate incident" and then refused to cancel the building plans, telling his Likud party that "the building in Jerusalem -- and in all other places -- will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years"? So what if the Israelis are now doing what they have not done over the last 42 years (as Israel’s president Shimon Peres pointed out) -- building Jewish homes in Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem?

Fergetaboutit, says Bibi Netanyahu. Let bygones be bygones. In fact, all the fuss is being whipped by a U.S. government intent on twisting Israel’s arm. That’s what Bibi’s supporters say -- including his friends in Washington, like Washington Post Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl, who wrote that Biden should have "sidestep[ped] such broadsides," as U.S. officials have done in the past, and pretended that settlement expansion doesn’t affect chances for peace.

President Obama wouldn’t go that far. But he did play along with the fiction that there’s no crisis. It’s simply a "disagreement" between friends, he told Fox News, about "how we can move this peace process forward."

Amid all this spin, which is not likely to fool anyone, there is a kernel of truth: The brewing crisis is not, in fact, between the United States and Israel. It is between two fundamentally opposed visions of the future.

One vision sees a negotiated solution "achieving a Palestinian state that is independent, viable, and contiguous," as Joe Biden put it last week, declaring the Obama administration "fully committed" to that goal. The other sees continued Israeli control of the West Bank and Gaza, leaving the Palestinians to rule only over an impossible archipelago of little clumps of land, separated by expanding Jewish settlements, security roads, and checkpoints.

Both visions have supporters in the U.S. and in Israel. And -- contrary to a common progressive view that Israeli hawks and their American supporters wield some monstrous, invincible power -- the peaceable vision of a just two-state solution is rapidly gaining support.

Let’s look first at Israel, where "there are only two political parties," says commentator Bernard Avishai: "The party that dreads the loss of Greater Israel, i.e., the party of settlements, and the party that dreads the isolation of global Israel, i.e., the party of America." Why "the party of America?" Because without continuing strong support from the U.S. government Israel would be left isolated, with no dependable allies at all.

This is a fear that haunts many Israelis. One of that nation’s most influential think-tanks warns of efforts to "turn Israel into a pariah state," calling it "the new battlefield." On that battlefield, the latest great skirmish was over the report by world-renowned jurist Richard Goldstone, accusing Israel of war crimes in its late 2008 attack on Gaza.

The Goldstone report triggered hysteria in Israel largely because of fear that if Israel’s attack were not seen as legitimate self-defense then every Israeli use of force, past and future, might be called into question. Moved by dread (and, in some quarters, a buried self-doubt), many Israelis made an illogical leap: If our military actions are deemed illegitimate, the very existence of our state will be deemed illegitimate. No matter how faulty the reasoning, it’s the feeling that counts. Desperate to avoid becoming a pariah state, many Israelis are willing to accept the dictates of their last remaining friend, the one in the White House.

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