Bluff and bluster over East Jerusalem
By Victor Kotsev
TEL AVIV - The gloves are off. The Israeli government seems to be on a
full-scale collision course with the United States as of Monday, when it
approved plans for 1,300 new housing units in East Jerusalem. To what extent is
this a bluff, and if so, who will blink first?
The announcement, a day after an official meeting between Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Vice President Joe Biden, came like a deja
vu of another meeting between Netanyahu and Biden in March. Then, a similar
announcement triggered a brief but intense storm between the two countries. 
This time, too, the news snapped at the heels of a fresh buildup of tension in
the entire Middle East, which naturally strains the relationship between the
There was little in the way of an official reaction from the
American administration as of Monday night. "We were deeply disappointed by the
announcement of advance planning for new housing units in sensitive areas of
East Jerusalem," US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. The top
Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, accused Israel of "sabotaging" the
Plans for the announcement were already public over the weekend, despite some
uncertainty regarding the precise number of housing units to be approved.
Following the meeting on Sunday, Biden made a point of emphasizing that the
March crisis was over and that the bond between the United States and Israel
was "literally unbreakable". Whether this means that this time Netanyahu has a
nod from the White House to build, will become clear shortly.
Yet, Biden is known as one of the American officials traditionally more
sympathetic toward Israel, or, in a more cynical way of putting it, one of
those who likes to offer carrots while others are preparing the sticks. In
March, too, he sought to smooth over the quarrel, and his conciliatory initial
statements were later followed by a much angrier response from his
administration. This time, Netanyahu has been steadily testing the limits of
American patience for over a month now, taking advantage of Obama's reluctance
to pick a fight during the mid-term election campaign.
In late September, the Israeli government announced that it would not continue
the moratorium over settlement construction in the West Bank. This prompted a
Palestinian refusal to continue the talks, and the Israeli decision remained
unchanged despite a number of incentives that the Americans offered (see
Middle East squeeze on Obama, Asia Times Online, October 7, 2010).
Somewhat smugly, Netanyahu did eventually announce that he was ready to
continue the moratorium if the Palestinians recognized Israel as a Jewish state
(something the Palestinians refuse to hear about).
Construction in the West Bank - though, reportedly, not approval of new
building plans - resumed at a fast pace, and far from offering compromises in
other areas, Netanyahu approved a legislation proposal that would require
non-Jews who seek Israeli citizenship to swear an oath to "Jewish and
democratic" Israel. After the election, too, he kept stiffening his position;
thus, the approved East Jerusalem construction is in logical sequence to a long
string of announcements.
During his current trip to the United States, the Israeli prime minister
focused much of his energy on the Iranian crisis, and called on the American
administration "to create a credible threat of military action" against Iran as
"the only way to ensure that Iran will not go nuclear". He argued that the only
time when Iran interrupted its nuclear program was in 2003, when it was
genuinely afraid of a military intervention.
In essence, Netanyahu seeks to reverse Obama's argument concerning the link
between Iran and the peace process. While many American officials have claimed
that the peace process is necessary for putting pressure on Iran, the Israelis
are arguing, implicitly, that advances on the Iranian front would induce them
to make concessions on the peace process.
There are also some signs of American fury with Netanyahu for this latter
position. Israeli intelligence analysis website Debka File reported on Monday
that the Americans had already started to increase the military pressure on
Iran and that "Obama administration leaders were irritated by Netanyahu
bursting through an open door".  US Defense Secretary Robert Gates responded
to Netanyahu's statements by saying, "I disagree that only a credible military
threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to end its nuclear
Another indication of a strain in the relationship between the two allies is
the very fact that Netanyahu went to the US while Obama was away on a trip to
India. In any case, however, the Israeli prime minister also has a few
complaints of his own. He has encountered strong American pressure to hold off
from attacking Iran ever since he was elected almost two years ago. He sees the
Iranian nuclear program as a major existential threat to his country,  was
elected on a platform to counter that threat, and fears that his main ally has
become resigned to containing an (allegedly soon to become) nuclear Iran. To
Netanyahu's credit, moreover, most of his recent demands (such as that Israel
be recognized as a Jewish state) were carefully chosen as reasonable and firmly
within Israeli domestic consensus.
There are also indications that the Israeli government might eventually decide
to accede to American demands. According to a recent report by the Israeli
newspaper Ha'aretz, "incentives for settlement freeze [are] likely on [the]
agenda" during Netanyahu's trip.  Netanyahu's very demand for recognition of
Israel as a Jewish state in exchange for a continued moratorium suggests some
flexibility, as do reports that his administration has so far failed to approve
new building plans for the West Bank. It could well be that the whole
escalation is a bluff; by opening the new round of bargaining with such
bluster, the Israelis could be seeking only to gain more ground that they can
subsequently surrender in exchange for American and Palestinian concessions.
Beyond doubt, the American response will also factor in the complex recent
developments beyond Israel. After the election, there is increasing domestic
pressure on Obama to take a harder line against the Islamic Republic: on
Saturday, a top US senator called on the administration to "neuter" Iran. 
Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated considerably in
recent weeks.  Lebanon is increasingly coming into the spotlight: on Monday,
the Wall Street Journal reported that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon was very
close to indicting senior Hezbollah officials for the murder of ex-premier
Rafik Hariri,  something that is likely to plunge the country into chaos.
Thus, there are several different possibilities for how the crisis will
develop; at this point, it seems almost certain that there will be a crisis, or
at least a show of a crisis, in US-Israeli relations. Obama might well pull out
the sticks on his seemingly unruly ally; it is even possible that he will
choose to downgrade the relationship somewhat and to warm up to the
Palestinians (according to a wilder theory, perhaps even to the Iranians).
However, during this extraordinarily tense moment in the Middle East, the US
and Israel will likely at some point decide that they simply need each other
too much for major rifts.
The hypothesis that a new spat could be used as a cover for war preparations
against Iran seems too much of a conspiracy theory at this point, not least
because there is hardly a need for such a cover.
Collusion between the United States and Israel, however, could easily center on
the peace process and happen according to (former White House chief of staff)
Rahm Emanuel's famous formula: "a good crisis should never go to waste." The
two administrations could use a quarrel as a moment of opportunity to redesign
their relationship and, specifically in the Israeli case, to justify some