I’ve Never Seen Israel Like This

by William Galston | June 27, 2010

Jerusalem—I visit Israel at least once a year, so I have an opportunity to observe changes in the country's concerns. Never before have I sensed such a mood of foreboding, which has been triggered by two issues above all—the looming impasse in relations with the United States and a possible military confrontation with Iran.

In response to American pressure that began shortly after President Obama took office, the Netanyahu government agree last November to a temporary and partial freeze on construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which averted an immediate crisis. The freeze expires in September, however, and it will not be renewed. As I write, the central committee of the Likud Party is meeting to consider a resolution supporting renewed construction in all parts of the country. Netanyahu has signaled that he will not oppose the resolution, which its proponents describe as a way of pinning him down and removing all ambiguity about Israel's future course. The Prime Minister is scheduled to visit the United States in early July and to meet with President Obama. In the face of an Israeli stance that will torpedo the current proximity talks in the fall, what will the president say to him? If Netanyahu leaves Washington without a clear sense of the U.S. stance, he and everyone else will interpret it as a signal that he can stay the course at minimal price.

There are persistent rumors here that the Obama administration hopes to bring down the current Israeli government and replace it with a more tractable coalition. Don't hold your breath. The potential new coalition member--the Kadima Party headed by Tsipi Livni—will not join unless Netanyahu fundamentally alters his stance in the negotiations with the Palestinian. Headed by Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline forces in the current coalition will not accept Kadima unless it accepts a tough government platform including the transfer of Israeli Arab villages to a new Palestinian state in return for the incorporation of major West Bank settlements into Israel. Netanyahu's stated position is that he will accept Kadima as an addition to the coalition but not as a replacement for Lieberman and Company. To bring about a new coalition without the hardliners, the Obama administration would have to threaten Israel with measures at least as tough as the ones George H. W. Bush and James Baker implemented two decades ago against the Shamir government, risking a huge domestic political backlash.

Looking farther east, most Israelis—including many who are very dovish vis-a-vis the Palestinians—believe that only military force can prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power in the near future, and they cannot understand why the United States resists this conclusion. According to Ha'aretzeyewitnesses on the ground support a recent report from the Times of London that Saudi Arabia has agreed to open its airspace to Israeli aircraft "as part of preparations for a possible attack on Iran." (Israel refused to comment on this report, which the Saudis of course have denied.)

A few months ago I participated in a day-long exercise, organized by the Brookings Institution, simulating the aftermath of a surprise Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. The outcome wasn't pretty—a forceful Iranian attack on American allies throughout the region and a serious rift in relations between Israel and the United States. The Israeli team hoped that the United States would back them with military measures against Iran that the American team refused to initiate.

In both these areas, the Obama administration has been playing for time. But the sand in the hourglass is running down quickly. Some time this fall, an administration headed toward a midterm election with a faltering economy and negative developments in two war zones may confront a genuine Middle East crisis. We can only hope that its contingency plans are in place and that they're better than BP's.     

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