The Week that Was, and the Week Yet to Come: Testing Obama’s Mettle

This coming week will tell us a great deal about the ability of President Obama to be a strong leader and an honest broker in Middle East peacemaking.

With the President having postponed his Asia visit in order to be on hand for conclusion of Congress’ year long deliberations on health care reform, he will now be in Washington during AIPAC’s annual policy conference and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit to the US. With both health care and Middle East peace high on the President’s agenda, all eyes will be on how the White House performs on both fronts.

Should he succeed in moving enough hesitant liberal and conservative members of his own party to accept compromises and vote for health care reform, the President will have demonstrated that he has the resolve to fight and win tough battles against powerful lobbies and hardened partisan opposition. Before attention shifts to the next domestic challenge, whether that be comprehensive immigration reform or a climate/energy bill, both of which involve taking on other powerful lobbies, the White House will have to face another tough issue knocking on its front door.

AIPAC is already gearing up to take on or take down this President who had the temerity to condemn Israel’s settlement plans in Jerusalem. We’ve seen past Administrations confront Israeli obstructionism. George H.W. Bush did it, and in subtle but clear ways, Bill Clinton did too. But the language used by this Administration in the past week has been unprecedented and remarkably tough. Vice President Biden “condemned”, Secretary of State Clinton deemed Israel’s behavior “insulting to the United States” and General Petraeus went further stating that Israel’s actions put American lives and prestige at risk. Then, at weeks end, with Secretary of State Clinton participating, the Quartet issued the strongest statement yet reaffirming that East Jerusalem is occupied territory and condemning Israeli construction plans.

Equally remarkable has been the muted response from Congress. Except for a predictable few and some partisan shots from Senator John McCain, his ally Senator Joseph Lieberman and Congressman Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip, key leadership in both Houses of Congress have kept their silence.

But this most probably won’t last for long. With AIPAC in town for their annual gathering, many Members of Congress running for reelection in November will in all likelihood make their required appearances to pay homage and express their “shock and dismay” at the Administration’s treatment of Israel. The entire affair will no doubt be orchestrated as a pro-Netanyahu pep rally, with an unmistakable anti-Obama undercurrent, all of which will only serve to demonstrate just how out of touch with American Jewish and Israeli opinion the famed and still powerful lobby has become. A recent poll in Israel shows 69% of Israelis saying they believe President Obama is “even-handed” and a majority expressing their displeasure with Netanyahu’s leadership.

The big test for the White House will come when Clinton and Netanyahu meet on Monday, and Netanyahu and the President meet on Tuesday. Expect talk about the enduring and unshakable relationship. But with all that out of the way, close attention should be paid to whether or not the Administration backs away from their demands on Israeli behavior. A White House melt down would doom the prospects for peace and would, as per the astute analysis of Petraeus, do grave damage to U.S. interests in the Arab World and beyond.

There are unconfirmed reports that Netanyahu may blink “and back down”, but this may be mere game playing from the Israeli Prime Minister. In any case, we’ll know soon enough.

Far from being the pragmatist some have claimed him to be, Netanyahu is an ideologue –” a wily maneuvering ideologue –” always pushing and always looking for an escape hatch. From the beginning he irritated the Obama team, but it has been his recent aggressiveness that brought them to the breaking point. Having bigger regional issues at stake in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and continuing effort to combat extremism, the White House could not tolerate Netanyahu’s most recent insult and were forced to respond.

Eager to begin talks, proximity or otherwise, the US Administration got the Palestinians and the Arab League to swallow a bitter pill, dropping their demand for preconditioning the talks on a total settlement freeze. But Netanyahu upended the entire affair with a series of announcements proclaiming Israel’s rights in Hebron, Bethlehem, the Jordan Valley and provocative actions in Jerusalem that would have rendered talks moot.

This is why the White House acted and why they dare not back down. To do so and create a replay of last fall when the Administration appeared to submit to Netanyahu’s game playing is a problem a White House spokesman said they are keen to avoid.

There are those who question this president’s mettle. If he wins on health care, and stands up to Netanyahu, Obama will have shown that he is well prepared to lead in the battles yet to come. It will all play out for better or worse this week.