WASHINGTON – “Last June at Bar-Ilan University, Prime Minister Netanyahu put his country on the path to peace,” Hillary Clinton declared at AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday. “President Abbas has put the Palestinians on that path as well.”

For all its honey coating, the secretary of state’s speech was replete with advice and demands that rang awkwardly, and worse, in the Israeli prime minister’s circle. She lectured on the untenability of the status quo, as though this was news to Israel. She urged Israelis, like their ancestors leaving Egypt, to take risks and seek new avenues to peace, as though Yitzhak Rabin, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert had not sought compromise and been rebuffed. She disingenuously misidentified Hamas, rather than Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah, as the prime force behind the honoring of the perpetrator of the Coastal Road massacre with a square in al-Bireh.

But it was the two sentences on those ostensibly shared Netanyahu and Abbas “paths” that fell flattest of all.

If only, was the bitter response to the top American diplomat’s assertion that Abbas had placed the Palestinians firmly on that peaceful route. In Binyamin Netanyahu’s view, underlined by his public comments during this fraught visit to the US, the Palestinians haven’t shown the slightest readiness to progress.

The Israel-US dispute may have exploded over 1,600 homes in Ramat Shlomo, it may be rumbling on viciously around the incendiary wider issue of any and all Israeli building in east Jerusalem, but it is essentially rooted in this stark difference of perception between Jerusalem and Washington as to the Palestinian Authority’s peace-making readiness and intentions.

Succinctly put, the thrust of Clinton’s speech, and of the succession of Netanyahu’s meetings with the secretary, with Vice President Joe Biden and, most crucially and problematically with President Barack Obama, reflected Washington’s contention that Abbas wants a deal, that he is ready to make the compromises necessary to forge one, and that Israel’s vital interests mandate that it does all that it possibly can to ensure the deal is done. Ironically, for an administration so starkly hostile to most everything it inherited from the Bush administration, one of the very few channels of continuity is the insistent belief that an accord with the Palestinian Authority beckons.

For the Israeli leadership – encompassing not just Netanyahu but Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well – this assessment is unfathomable.

In Washington’s eyes, Abbas can be forgiven for spurning Olmert’s “take it all” offer because the outgoing prime minister was a lame duck, and who knew whether a successor Israeli government would honor any hurriedly signed principles of an accord? In the contrary view of the now-very-tight Netanyahu-Barak partnership, an Abbas who truly wanted a deal would have been begging for the opportunity to put his name alongside Olmert’s, desperate to sign on to the unprecedented territorial offer, ready to challenge the next Israel coalition to honor the terms, and poised to run to the international community in injured protest if such a successor tried to evade the prior commitments.

Before the Obama-Netanyahu meetings on Tuesday night, signs were that both sides were making some efforts to acknowledge and try to find a way to move on from their Jerusalem arguments and their conflicting assessments over Abbas’s viability as a peace partner. Netanyahu planned his trip to AIPAC without knowing for certain that he would be meeting with Clinton, Biden or Obama, and wound up spending extensive time, separately, with all of them.

And yet Netanyahu headed home Thursday the near-ostracized victim of what he regards as the Obama administration’s wrongheadedness, and more deeply aware than ever of the extent of the rift. He left behind an administration, and most especially a president, angry and frustrated by what it regards as his stubbornness and misplaced priorities.

In a strikingly critical piece in The Washington Post on Thursday, Jackson Diehl, the paper’s former Jerusalem correspondent, accused Obama of adding “more poison to a US-Israeli relationship that already was at its lowest point in two decades. Tuesday night the White House refused to allow nonofficial photographers record the president’s meeting with Netanyahu; no statement was issued afterward. Netanyahu is being treated as if he were an unsavory Third World dictator, needed for strategic reasons but conspicuously held at arms length.”

The divide seems almost impossible to bridge: For all the current Israeli political hysteria, and for all Netanyahu’s deep dismay over the administration’s treatment of him, he is not about to dump the more hawkish wing of his coalition, and try to draw in Kadima, in order to meet American demands he both opposes ideologically and regards as counter-productive in practice.

And with that yawning US-Israel divide comes the exacerbation of Israel’s international pariah status, an accompanying boost to Israel’s enemies and reinforcement for the cooling of ties by former friends. Would Britain have responded quite so publicly to its ostensible evidence of Israeli passport fakery, would other affected countries be investigating quite so assiduously, if it were publicly clear that the US and Israel stood shoulder-to-shoulder today as they did in the recent past?

The Israeli government blames the administration’s overreach – its centerpiece demand for a halt to all building for Jews in east Jerusalem – for the failure to start proximity talks, much less resume direct negotiations with Abbas. The Palestinian leader, they say, has no need to come and bargain at the negotiating table when the US is doing his bargaining for him. The administration, in turn, regards Israel’s provocative expansion of Jewish building over the Green Line as the prime obstacle to rapid progress.

While the Americans and the Israelis intensified their dialogue of the deaf, 2009 came and went without any direct Israeli-Palestinian talks – the first such barren year in 17, as an Israeli veteran of past peacemaking dialogues with the Palestinians observed here this week. At the rate we’re all going, he went on, 2010, at the very best, will be no more productive.

In fact, it looks certain to be a whole lot worse than that.

***

The 7,800-strong turnout for AIPAC’s Gala Dinner on Monday night represented a record. It also constituted a security nightmare.

The stringent checks necessitated by the presence of Netanyahu, other Israeli leaders, hundreds of members of Congress, ambassadors et al, produced huge lines at the entrance to the main hall of the Washington Convention Center. Senators and other dignitaries had to be rescued from the largely well-behaved, but very slow-moving melee. Painstaking and thorough was clearly the security order of the day.

And yet, as Netanyahu gathered momentum in his address, it became plain that security had been breached. A protester jumped onto a table perhaps 40 yards from the prime minister’s podium, unfurled a pink banner protesting his settlement policies and screamed at him to “lift the siege of Gaza.”

As it happened, the heckler struck just as the prime minister was reaching the section of his speech where he highlighted the baseless abuse hurled at the Jews over the centuries – slanders against the Jewish people, he said, that had “always preceded the physical assaults against them and were used to justify them.”

***

Netanyahu’s remarks, or at least a good part of them, sounded like a calculated riposte, and a fairly blunt one at that, to some of Clinton’s.

The secretary had urged Israel to “take risks, even a leap of faith,” for peace. The prime minister said dryly that Israel was “prepared to take risks for peace, but we will not be reckless with the lives of our people and the life of the one and only Jewish state.”

The secretary had asserted that Abbas was a potential peace partner. The prime minister wondered, by way of derisive retort, “What has the Palestinian Authority done for peace? Well, they have placed preconditions on peace talks, waged a relentless international campaign to undermine Israel’s legitimacy, and promoted the notorious Goldstone Report that falsely accuses Israel of war crimes.”

The secretary had warned that “new construction in east Jerusalem” undermined mutual trust, endangered the proximity talks, exposed daylight between Israel and the United States “that others in the region could hope to exploit” and undermined America’s unique ability to play an essential role in the peace process. Netanyahu slammed back that “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.

“Jerusalem is not a settlement. It is our capital... Today, nearly a quarter of a million Jews, almost half the city’s Jewish population, live in neighborhoods that are just beyond the 1949 armistice lines. All these neighborhoods are within a five-minute drive from the Knesset. They are an integral and inextricable part of modern Jerusalem. Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, building them in no way precludes the possibility of a two-state solution.”

Signing his dramatic health care reform bill the next day, Obama declared triumphantly that America is a country “that shapes our own destiny.”

Netanyahu was saying much the same thing.

Yet the prime minister’s ripostes paled by comparison to the ferocious defense of Israel mounted earlier that same evening by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham from South Carolina. A colonel in the US Air Force Reserves who has served briefly in noncombat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the fiery Graham garnered arguably the night’s loudest applause with a rhetorical salvo that began with a shouted “Israel... Congress has your back. We won’t let you down!”

He continued with, “Republicans and Democrats... It’s good to be here to celebrate something we all agree on: Our best friend in the world, the State of Israel!”

That was followed with a wry overture to Abbas so different from Clinton’s tone: “To the Palestinians I say, I share your hopes and dreams. All I ask is that you recognize Israel has a place on the planet.”

Next, he directly challenged the administration. “Friends disagree,” he allowed. But, he urged, “disagree quietly – so that those who wish you ill, who do not have your interests at heart, are not empowered.”


Turning to the matter of Iran, he asserted, “It is better to go to war than to allow the Holocaust to develop a second time. I hope and pray that other options will work...”

And for his big finish, voice resonating through the vast hall, he recalled that when people would query Ronald Reagan as to how the Cold War would end, Reagan would reply: “We win. They lose.”

Asked Graham: “How does the war on terror end? We win. They lose! And by ‘we,’ I mean moderate Muslims, Jews, agnostics, Buddhists, vegetarians...”

And then he was gone, the applause ringing in his ears. Netanyahu was a pussycat by comparison.

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