Into the twilight zone

The angry US response to the announcement of construction in Shiloh may be an indicator of what lies ahead come the presidential interregnum.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 18, 2009 (photo credit: REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, May 18, 2009
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The big question regarding the remainder of Barack Obama’s presidency – at least from Israel’s point of view – is whether in the twilight zone between the upcoming US elections and his leaving office the president will set out parameters for a twostate solution or act via the UN Security Council.
Obama’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in late September gave few clues as to how he intends to proceed and his meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the General Assembly didn’t give much insight either.
But fast forward a few days later to Obama’s speech at Shimon Peres’s funeral and the White House and State Department’s angry response this week to the approval of 98 new homes in Shiloh and the picture starts to become clearer.
At Peres’s funeral Obama noted “the unfinished business of peace,” while quoting Peres as saying: “The Jewish people weren’t born to rule another people.” He added that Peres had “insisted that as human beings, Palestinians must be seen as equal in dignity to Jews, and must, therefore, be equal in self-determination.”
While Obama’s words at Mount Herzl perhaps just set out his already well-known thinking on the conflict, it was the reaction to the announcement of the approval of new settler housing units that was really telling.
Not that announcements of new settlement construction don’t always get a dressing down, but this one was unusually caustic.
Beyond a “strong condemnation,” the State Department linked the approval to the recent $38 billion US military aid package to Israel by saying it was deeply troubled that, in the wake of an “unprecedented agreement on military assistance,” Israel had taken a decision “contrary to its long-term security interest in a peaceful resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians.”
It also brought up the Peres funeral by saying: “It is disheartening that while Israel and the world mourned the passing of president Shimon Peres.... plans were advanced that would seriously undermine the prospects for the two-state solution that he so passionately supported.”
White House spokesman Josh Earnest also noted the “recent announcement of the US commitment to Israel’s security,” described the location of the new housing as “far closer to Jordan than it is to Israel” and added that Israel had violated the assurances it gave the administration causing concerns about “how good friends treat one another.”
So, will the escalating rhetoric turn into action? Netanyahu is convinced that he can deflect the pressure with talk of alternative tracks, such as a regional peace initiative, and breeze past the US presidential interregnum.
But, as Martin Indyk, Obama’s former Middle East adviser, pointed out: “At a certain point, the administration may well decide that there needs to be consequences for what it now sees as an effort to close off the two-state solution.”
The language coming out of Washington and the sentiment expressed at Peres’s funeral show the administration isn’t yet ready to bury the peace process.