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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.

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"It's time for Netanyahu to say yes to Obama," an editorial headline in the prestigious Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz proclaimed. No less a figure than Israel’s President Peres bluntly explained why: "Israel must forge good relations with other countries, primarily the United States, so as to guarantee political support in a time of need."

Netanyahu’s chief political opponent, Kadimah Party leader Tzipi Livni, made much the same point. Decrying Netanyahu’s "stupid declarations," she told her party that she is "willing to pay the political price in order to preserve Jerusalem through negotiations … because I knew that even if strong statements strengthened me politically, the reaction by the world will weaken Jerusalem" and thus all of Israel.

That’s "the party of America" speaking. And it embraces a majority of Israeli Jews, Avishai claims. Columnist Shmuel Rosner, an influential Israeli observer of U.S. - Israel relations, agrees; he recently wrote that if Obama "signalled that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted, Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic support would quickly evaporate."

Netanyahu is well aware that his grip on power is shaky at best. His own Likud party has only 27 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (parliament). That’s one less than the largest party, the centrist Kadimah. According to one theory making the rounds, the Obama administration’s immediate goal is to force Netanyahu to drop his right-wing coalition partners and form a new government in alliance with Kadimah and his current leftish partner, the Labor Party.

A majority of Israelis will not be moved to resist the power of the right simply to get justice for Palestinians. "In Israel, building in East Jerusalem is not controversial for the general public," as Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler says.  "What is controversial is doing things that affect the relationship with the United States.  And [for] that Netanyahu is facing a lot of criticism."

If Israelis see Israel’s legitimacy in the world’s eyes at stake, Livni could well rally them to topple the present government. The threat of losing Washington’s friendship could set that political earthquake in motion.

If Netanyahu is a politician who values his hold on power above all else, he’ll respond to U.S. pressure by creating a new, centrist government. If he is a true believer in the pro-settler, pro-occupation vision, he’ll step aside in favor of Livni or some other leader who values Israel’s global standing above all else. Either way, persistent pressure from Washington -- and that alone -- would open the door to the peace talks Obama says he wants so badly.

But wouldn’t it also open the door to a fatal political attack on Obama himself? That’s the question many progressives will ask, clinging (though I can’t understand why) to their favorite image of the right-wing Zionists as an almighty force in Washington.

The answer is that Obama is in a better position than any president in decades to make demands on the Israelis and insist that they be met. The knee-jerk support that Israel once got in the U.S. Congress for anything it did, no matter how outrageous, is no longer there. Israel used to count on legislators like Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Gary Ackerman, chair of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, both from districts with sizeable Jewish populations.

But Berman responded to the Israeli right-wing ambush by supporting Obama: "The Administration had real justification for being upset with the timing of the settlements announcement.  A process was supposed to be in place to keep the United States from being blindsided by just such a development, and yet once again we were blindsided.  The Israeli leadership needs to get this right and put a system in place so it won’t happen again. … The talks need to go forward." Ackerman responded in a similar vein: "It’s a moment for the Obama administration to say to our Israeli partners and our Palestinian partners, ‘We need to see peace.’"

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