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Times Reports Shift in US Mideast Policy

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The New York Times reports today that recent months have seen "a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement."

The Times quotes unnamed administration officials who say that the President views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as "'costing us significantly in terms of blood and treasure' - drawing an explicit link between the Israeli-Palestinian strife and the safety of American soldiers as they battle Islamic extremists and terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere."

Mr. Obama's words reverberated through diplomatic circles in large part because they echoed those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent Congressional testimony, the general said that the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States. He has denied reports that he was suggesting that soldiers were being put in harm's way by American support for Israel.

But the impasse in negotiations "does create an environment," he said Tuesday in a speech in Washington. "It does contribute, if you will, to the overall environment within which we operate."

The paper notes that the "glimmers of daylight" between the US and Israeli positions began in the previous administration.

Three years ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, declared during a speech in Jerusalem that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was a "strategic interest" of the United States. In comments that drew little notice at the time, she said, "The prolonged experience of deprivation and humiliation can radicalize even normal people."

This shift, long in the making, "increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state."

Former Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk explains why Obama's sense of urgency is warranted.

"In the past, the problem of who drinks out of whose well in Nablus has not been a strategic interest of the United States," said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and the vice president and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He said there was an interest now because of the tens of thousands of troops fighting Islamist insurgencies abroad at the same time that the United States was trying to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything?" Mr. Indyk said. "No. But will it help us get there? Yes."

The Times writes that General James Jones, the White House national security adviser, agrees with the President while his assistant, Dennis Ross, favors an "incremental approach." According to other sources, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joseph Biden are on board with Obama and Jones.

The administration "insists that support for Israel is unwavering" and points out that strategic military cooperation with Israel is continuing at the same levels as previously. Also, according to polls, a clear majority of the American Jewish community supports the Obama approach to U.S.-Israel relations, with only 37% disapproving. Meanwhile, Israeli "support for dismantling most settlements" is at a "five-year high."

But the major "pro-Israel" lobbying organizations are not happy. On Tuesday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) announced that it had 333 House members and 76 Senators backing Congressional letters telling Obama to ease up on Prime Minister Netanyahu. (Here is the Senate text; here is the House's).

One key phrase appears in both the Senate and House letters. The Senate letter states: "Progress occurs in the Middle East when everyone knows there is simply no space between the U.S. and Israel." The House letter demands that there be "no space between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to security, none. No space."

In other words, they believe President Obama should stop publicly differing with Israel on settlements or anything else. His job is to eliminate any "space" by supporting Netanyahu. Simple.

With all those members of Congress yielding to AIPAC's pleas to sign the letters, one can expect some members, with an eye on November, to publicly weigh in against Obama's approach.

In an unusual statement by a senior AIPAC official, Jonathan Kessler said at last month's AIPAC conference that the lobbying organization does not hesitate before attempting to ensure the defeat members of Congress it opposes. Kessler was speaking about the student senate at the University of California, Berkeley, and its effort to pass a resolution calling on the university to divest from two companies that purportedly supply the Israeli military. He then says that AIPAC will act on the university campuses as it does "in our nation's capital."

This is from the UC Berkeley newspaper, the Daily Californian, and can be seen on video here.

"How are we going to beat back the anti-Israel divestment resolution at Berkeley?" said Jonathan Kessler, leadership development director for AIPAC, at a recent conference of the lobbying group. "We're going to make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote. This is how AIPAC operates in our nation's capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation's campuses."

Also, the World Jewish Congress has taken out full page ads in today's Washington Post and Wall Street Journal criticizing the President. Ronald Lauder, who serves as president of the organization, is an ultra-conservative Republican who ran for mayor of New York in 1989 as a right-wing alternative to Rudolph Giuliani. (He lost.)

Lauder's letter includes this question to Obama: "What is the Administration's position on Israel's borders in any final status agreement? Ambiguity on this matter has provoked a wave of rumors and anxiety."

Surely, Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom Lauder says he cleared the letter, might have informed Lauder that the United States is not alone in not defining Israel's borders. Neither does Israel. In fact, the conflict Obama is trying to solve is largely based on the fact that Israel refuses to define its borders and yield territory not included within them.

But the battle lines are being drawn. On one side is the administration and friends of Israel who understand that the Jewish State can only be secured by an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that implements the two-state solution.

On the other are people who believe, or claim to believe, that Israel is best served by the deadly status quo. The latter group has fewer numbers but many more resources.

No doubt, Obama knows what he is up against. But he is determined to secure an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. He won't be daunted.

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