The dispute over settlements has “transformed the American-Israeli connection and forced Israel to face new international realities.”  Israel and the United States are facing “the worst split” in decades, a former Israeli foreign minister asserted, and the tremors may turn very soon into an earthshaking shift, “unless the Israeli government moderates its position on settlements.”  Israelis will have to make some hard choices, according to an influential Knesset member: “Never in the history of the relations between two states has a major superpower, in return for nourishing and supporting a distant and small second state, been ridiculed instead of being treated with gratitude and consideration by its beneficiary. . . . The tail not only wagged the dog, it also barked, while for many years the dog remained silent and embarrassed.”

That was the scene in January 1992, as reported by Leon Hadar in Middle East Policy (“The ‘Special Relationship’: Israel Decides Its Future”).

Plus ça change . . .

After Vice President Joseph Biden returned from his visit to Israel in March, Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, confided to his colleagues that the two countries’ relations were in “the worst crisis in 35 years.”

Biden started that visit by declaring that America’s commitment to Israel was “unshakable,” that “there is absolutely no space between the United States and Israel in terms of Israel’s security—none.”  Only hours later the Israeli government announced a plan to build 1,600 new apartments for Jews in the Ramat Shlomo district of East Jerusalem.

The move humiliated Biden and infuriated Palestinians, who see East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, and whose leaders had only recently agreed—at Biden’s urging and arm-twisting—to resume indirect talks with Israel.  Either it was a “gaffe” (as Israel claimed) or a deliberate attempt to present the United States with a fait accompli and assert Israel’s right to build in the area she annexed in 1967, an area she does not regard as “occupied territory.”

Biden condemned the announcement, and on March 12 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kept Prime Minister Benjamin Net­anyahu on the phone for 45 minutes expressing her displeasure.  (Love him or hate him, you have to sympathize with “Bibi” on this one.)  In a speech to AIPAC on March 22, Clinton said that continued expansion of Jewish settlements undermined mutual trust and endangered the putative peace process.

The announcement that Netanyahu would meet President Obama at the White House on March 23 was widely seen as a sign that Washington was prepared to defuse the crisis and expected the Israeli prime minister to make a conciliatory gesture in return.  This was not to be: Just hours before the meeting came another Israeli announcement that new homes for Jews would be built in East Jerusalem, this time in the Sheikh Jarrah district.  No “gaffe” this time.

The two rounds of talks lasted 90 minutes and ended without a statement, without a photo op, and without an agreement on the construction moratorium.  The United States and Israel have a “strong relationship,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said blandly the following day, without disclosing any details.  “There are areas of agreement, there are areas of disagreement . . . ”  One area of disagreement, my usually reliable sources say, concerned Netanyahu’s attempt to shift the focus of the talks to Iran and her nuclear program.  Obama accepted that the program is a problem but refused to be sidetracked.  It was the chilliest U.S.-Israeli summit in a generation.

At home, taking a hard line on Jerusalem—“Jerusalem is not a settlement; it’s our capital,” Netanyahu says—is supported by a majority of Israelis, including those who favor trading land for peace in the West Bank.  Humiliating an American president widely perceived as Muslim-friendly and ambivalent on Israel is no less popular: According to a Haaretz poll (March 23), a large majority of Israelis believes Netanyahu was not deliberately causing a crisis in relations with Washington.  On both fronts, he will also score points with the hard-liners in his fragile coalition government.

Abroad, Netanyahu is making it clear that he is not committed to the two-state solution and that the status of Jerusalem is to him nonnegotiable.  Ominously for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, before the Biden visit Netanyahu had obtained an agreement from the United States that assurances offered by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, would no longer be regarded as the platform for future talks.  Those assurances had been based on the principle of a two-state solution.  Netanyahu may speak about the future of the occupied Palestinian territories, but his Likud Party and (especially) his coalition partners do not accept that they are either “Palestinian” or “occupied.”  If the proximity talks are canceled, or (more likely) initiated but then hopelessly stalled, Netanyahu expects Obama’s already low regional credibility to sink even further.  He hopes that in November his GOP friends will regain Congress and that, two years from now, the President will be successfully challenged by someone whose middle name is not Hussein.

Back in 1991, George H.W. Bush told Israel that he would not provide ten billion dollars in loan guarantees unless there was a moratorium on settlements.  Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir shrugged and effectively told the President to send the money and mind his own business.  The following year he got the money, and Bush père lost the election.  Plus ça change, indeed.