Wednesday, March 24, 2010

High Drama in Washington

I've been on vacation this week in the UK, and haven't had a lot of time to blog. I've been busy with other things, like visiting two 3-star Michelin restaurants in 36 hours (and boy, is there ever a difference even within this lofty elite category). Let's put it this way: I liked Gordon Ramsay a lot as a television figure before I went to his flagship restaurant in Chelsea Monday night. Now I really have come to appreciate what he has accomplished as a restaurateur. But this is not a restaurant review. Maybe another time...

There has been great drama both here and overseas in Washington the last 36 hours over the actions of the government of the state of Israel, and while the British expulsion of the Mossad station chief in London is dominating the local media, it seems to me that the events going on between the White House and the Israeli embassy in Washington are far more important. Israeli media is reporting a fevered and angry and truly quite dramatic set of meetings that have been going on since Tuesday and continuing into Wednesday without cessation. Normally, marathon negotiating sessions over the Israeli-Arab conflict occur in the region or at the isolated presidential retreat of Camp David, MD. Israelis and Arabs (Egyptians, Palestinians, sometimes Syrians or Jordanians) would engage in marathon haggling sessions with American diplomats shuttling back and forth between bungalows, serving as trusted mediators, occasionally offering ideas. US negotiators were happy to advance the dialogue, and could match the late-night drama measure for measure.

The big difference this time -- and an indication of exactly how far matters have turned sour for both Israel and the US -- is that the late-night marathons are happening in downtown Washington not between Israelis and Palestinians, but rather between Israeli and American negotiators. Both sides are contributing their own missteps to this amazing and rare display of stark disagreement. But I still maintain that by pressing the government of Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu on the question of Jewish construction in East Jerusalem (I note that on the BBC, it is always called "occupied East Jerusalem"), Barack Obama is trying to bring down the current Netanyahu government. I believe that the American negotiators (George Mitchell, Dennis Ross, and Dan Shapiro) have reached the conclusion that nothing can happen with Netanyahu's current coalition. Better to shuffle the deck now and quickly, than wait for the next Middle East war.

Netanyahu can choose if he so wishes to work with the Obama administration -- but he would then have to roll back the clock to a moment just after the 2009 elections 13 months ago and configure a new government under his leadership without the participation of the rightist nationalist and religious parties which dictate his current policy. Every indication suggests that Netanyahu is not going to forego his strongly mapped-out positions on settlements and East Jerusalem for a chance to roll up his sleeves and work with this new American administration on its suddenly new terms. The next few hours (and weeks) will quite possibly be the most diplomatically intensive evaluation of the Israel-US relationship since the "reassessment" of 1975. A domestically triumphant Barack Obama is trying to discard his weak hand (the Netanyahu government) and make a difference in the Middle East. Exciting -- quite possibly historic -- times.

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