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Opinion: Lines in the sand matter in the Middle East

How Israel has again crossed a line with its US ally and why Obama must not let that happen.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden sits with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) in Jerusalem March 9, 2010. Tensions between the U.S. and Israel flared earlier this month when the Israeli government announced — during Biden's visit — a plan to extend a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

BOSTON — President Obama is once again eye-ball-to-eye-ball with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Obama lost the last one when he called for a complete settlement freeze soon after he was elected. Netanyahu ignored him, and there were no consequences. At least, not for Netanyahu’s government.

There were consequences in the Arab world where expectations had been raised by Obama’s  historic speech last June in Cairo, which seemed to offer a new relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s back-down made it much more difficult to get the kind of support he needs against extremism, against Iran, and for an Arab-Israeli peace.

There were consequences in the United States, for it is beginning to dawn on strategic planners that the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands is directly detrimental to  American security. No less a figure than Gen. David Petraeus, the most respected military man in America, weighed in on the issue before the Senate Armed Services Committee saying: “The (Arab-Israeli) conflict foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favoritism towards Israel.”

Petraeus, who has two wars to manage in predominantly Muslim countries, has to take into account that Israel’s continuing occupation is the number one poster child for recruiting  extremists.

And when a top American general says things like that, you know there are consequences for Israel too — consequences to which Netanyahu seems blind. Despite America’s declarations of undying support for Israel, the blank checks are being more carefully scrutinized. Israel cannot take the U.S. completely for granted as before.

That does not mean that U.S. support for Israel’s ultimate security is in danger. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been very adamant on that point. But it does mean that there is more debate today on how much the United States has to tailor its foreign policy to mesh with Israel’s. It does mean that the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the primary pro-Israel lobbying group, is being challenged by American Jews and non-Jews more than in the past. Testimony to this is the advent of the more liberal J Street, ( a recently formed Jewish lobby with an active website which proclaims itself “pro-peace.”

The tensions between the U.S. and Israel flared earlier this month after Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Jerusalem was greeted by an Israeli government announcement of a plan to build an additional 1,600 housing units in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. This came despite the Obama administration’s insistence on a freeze of such construction to help in efforts to rekindle peace talks.