By Alan Elsner
NEW YORK, Dec 7 (Reuters) - President Barack Obama may have believed he had at least until his inauguration next month to renew efforts to forge a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but events since he won re-election have put fresh demands on the president.
Since the U.S. election, we have witnessed another mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza; the upgrading of the status of the Palestinians to a non-member state at the United Nations General Assembly; and most recently a series of retaliatory moves by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These included a decision to build thousands of housing units in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and holding back some tax receipts that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority.
Some of Israel's supporters in the U.S. Senate tried to weigh in this week with a draft resolution that punishes the Palestinians by closing their office in Washington, D.C. The draft was one of 20 amendments submitted to the Defense Authorization Act of 2012- but it was mysteriously withdrawn on Wednesday before coming to a vote.
Hamas, which emerged from the most recent confrontation battered, but with its political prestige boosted across the Arab world, is still committed to Israel's destruction. Listed by the United States as a terrorist organization, it is not considered a partner for negotiation. However, absent the Palestinian mission in Washington, the United States would have no official Palestinian partner for its diplomacy efforts.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that the amendment might have been dropped when it became clear that it would garner disproportionate Republican support and thus embarrass its Democratic backers. It also may have failed because the Obama administration lobbied against it. The administration considers the conduct of foreign policy, including which foreign missions are allowed to operate in Washington, its business and not that of Congress. Nonetheless, in an extremely rare example of a U.S. lawmaker publicly criticizing Israel, California Senator Diane Feinstein was quoted by Congressional Quarterly as criticizing Israel for undermining peace. It seems clear from Feinstein's comment that some Democrats were angered by Netanyahu's action.
Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is Israel's partner for peace - as acknowledged repeatedly by Netanyahu. If the amendment in Congress was a genuine reflection of feelings toward Palestinian representation in the U.S. that undercuts Obama's efforts to negotiate a solution that prevents further conflict.
The most serious recent move was the Netanyahu government's decision to build a huge new settlement in a tract of land in the West Bank known as E1. The strategic significance of this area is huge. The construction would cut off the north of the West Bank from the south, meaning that any future Palestinian state would not rule a contiguous territory but would be reduced to a series of cantons separated by massive Jewish settlement blocks.
A peace settlement would require the recognition if a contiguous Palestinian state with the E1 zone as its north-south corridor. Netanyahu's E1 move is nothing less than a dagger aimed at the heart of the two-state solution.
Faced with this, the Obama administration's tepid response has been indicative only of his unpreparedness to act. While Britain, France and a growing list of other nations summoned the Israeli ambassadors in their capital to hear tough messages of grave concern and intense displeasure, State Department spokesman Mark Toner merely reiterated "our longstanding opposition to Israeli settlement activity" and urged Israel to "reconsider its actions and exercise restraint."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a forum last week that Netanyahu's decision "set back the cause of a negotiated peace," but the outgoing secretary seems disinclined to become more involved. She won plaudits last month for helping to negotiate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but she seems to have little appetite for more substantive work in the closing weeks of her tenure. The last thing Clinton, who is mulling a possible 2016 presidential bid, may want is to bump heads with Israel.
With Obama handling the fiscal cliff negotiations, Clinton effectively out of the game and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, her possible successor, hamstrung with her own political troubles, it seems that no one high up in the administration is minding the Israel-Palestine account.
Officials are no doubt working quietly through diplomatic channels to persuade Netanyahu to back down from his E1 decision. But this may not be enough.
The Israeli leader is in the thick of an election campaign during which his Likud Party has shifted sharply to the right. In internal party primaries that determined the party's slate for the Jan. 22 election, well-known moderates such as Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were effectively shunted aside while right-wingers who back more settlement activity and oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state took top positions.
In the weeks remaining before the election, Netanyahu is liable to take even more extreme steps to shore up his position. Defying the international community has always played well with the Israeli electorate, large portions of which feel victimized by the rest of the world.
But criticism from the United States is different. While Israeli politicians may be able to dismiss criticism from European nations and even from close friends like Australia, they cannot do so when the censure comes from Washington.
Israeli politicians and the Israeli public have always understood the degree of their dependence on the United States. Without U.S. diplomatic backing, Israel would be almost entirely isolated in the world. Without deep U.S. military, scientific and financial involvement, Israel would struggle to maintain its prized technological edge over its enemies. Obama may have wished to wait until after his Inauguration to get tough with Israel - but he may not have that luxury.
( Journalist and author Alan Elsner served for 30 years for Reuters News Service. He reported from over 50 countries and was also Bureau Chief in Stockholm, running bureaus in the four Nordic countries, and Jerusalem correspondent. His books include two novels ("The Nazi Hunter" and "Romance Language") and a memoir of his father's World War II experiences as a prisoner in Gulag camps in the Soviet Union, "Guarded by Angels." He also won national attention with his book, "Gates of Injustice: The Crisis in America's Prisons." He is currently Executive Director for The Israel Project. )