Theatre provides the most apt metaphors for understanding what is happening between Washington and Jerusalem. For it is more about a script gone awry than a conflict over objectives and interests. To the small extent that interests diverge, it is domestic concerns that are paramount -- not the geopolitics of the Palestine issue or the region. On the latter, there is still a fundamental accord that is not jeopardized by this spat. Some fear, others hope, that the dramatic posturing indeed will force a rupture in this long united couple. Don't bet on it. While the rare display of friction rivets attention, little of consequence has changed.
The play is a remake of a hardy perennial that always wins favor in Israel and the United States -- with decidedly mixed reviews elsewhere. This production went on stage early last fall when Bibi Netanyahu called Barack Obama's bluff in spurning the president's much ballyhooed call for a freeze on settlements. The plot line was almost immediately set in motion by Hillary Clinton who, speaking in Tel Aviv on the day that the Israeli prime minister said 'NO' to the Americans, boldly declared that Israel had made an "unprecedented concession" by offering the cosmetic gesture of temporarily suspending a few projects on the West Bank while excluding East Jerusalem. She called on the Palestinians to reciprocate by meeting major Israeli demands. This opening act set the scene for the slow unfolding of a well rehearsed pseudo drama.
Its predictable motifs were all recognizable. Israeli leaders are truculent but coyly suggest that they just might sit down with the nominal Palestinian President Abbas -- if certain preconditions are met, now including no mention of an independent Palestinian state. Abbas, for his part, squirms under American pressure as his desperately tries to retain a bit of his depleted credibility among his own people. All three parties do agree on one thing: Hamas must be treated as a pariah and the Gazans punished for supporting them. The poor Abbas allowed himself to be squeezed into opposing a vote by the UN Human Rights Council on the Goldstone Report before popular protests made him reverse course. To avoid acknowledging the stalemate, the irrepressibly optimistic Americans contrive ingenious strategems to give the impression that the 'peace process' is not dead. A lot of pointless motion is engendered to maintain this fiction. That serves the interest of the Israelis who want nothing to happen; the White House that seeks to avoid the embarrassment of admitting that Obama's rhetoric was just hot air; and the PLO leadership that fears issuance of a death certificate for the 'peace process' is tantamount to a political death certificate for them.
To keep up the façade, administration luminaries schedule periodic visits -- Secretary Clinton, Vice President Biden and the sorely tried George Mitchell who is fated to keep riding the circuit because he is an earnest man who also happens to be half Lebanese by ancestry. Supporting roles are played by Washington's allies in the Arab world who just want either the problem to disappear or the Palestinians to disappear. As for the other members of the diplomatic Quartet -- the United Nations, the European Union, and Russia, they are little more than spear carriers who adorn the stage. Cynics refer to the diplomatic grouping as the Isosceles Quartet, a reference to the absence of the first violin and leader who prefers solo performances.
The novel device for keeping the plot going was 'proximity talks.' It referred to some vague arrangement for indirect communication between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority. They would be close to each other but there would be no touching. Courtship through a Washington switchboard operator. It remained obscure whether -- in the improbable event of a romance blossoming -- the consummation too would be through American intermediation.
In order to keep this fictive play going, all the actors had to follow the script scrupulously lest the audience see it as a farce rather than the advertised drama. Netanyahu was the undisciplined maverick who ignored his lines. Worse, he mugged for the pleasure of his raucous pals in the audience who had tired of the old script. So when Biden came calling once again, Bibi didn't bother to play-act. Horror in Washington where Obama could not tolerate yet another public rebuff. He had caved in during the summer for two reasons: 1) that is what he habitually does when faced with a willful, tough personality (think Max Baucus/Joe Lieberman, the Wall Street barons, the Pentagon brass); and 2) he has no deep seated convictions about the Palestinian issue. So long as the fiction of a "peace process" could serve as a fig leaf concealing his failure, he could contain the damage to his credibility and to American interests in the Middle East. Now suddenly the masquerade is exposed for all to see.
That left the White House two choices. The first is to make a show of sternly admonishing the Israelis. That reflects genuine anger at Netanyahu's insolence and serves to foster an impression that the President of the United States is not to be trifled with. This option addresses images and perceptions -- at home and abroad -- without requiring Obama to lock horns with the Israelis on the terms of a real accord. The other option is to press hard for resolution of the Palestinian issue, to invest the necessary political capital in the U.S. and diplomatic capital in the region, and to get into a brawl with Netanyahu's hard line government. The safer bet is that he will opt for the former. Obama is not a fighter, he has little political capital to expend at home, the Israeli lobby was quick to lay down the gauntlet by demanding he cease antagonizing Jerusalem, and he already is juggling too many eggs that may well splatter in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran -- not to speak of Capitol Hill.
So keep your programs. Another production is on its way with the same veteran cast.