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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.

Netanyahu apologized for the "timing" of the announcement, but has so far refused to back down on plans to build the units. The Obama administration has made it clear it wants the order to build rescinded. And that right now is the line in the sand between Netanyahu and his cabinet and Obama and his administration. For now, Netanyahu blames his cabinet.
And it seems Netanyahu is consistently unable to keep his coalition partners in check. He gave the foreign ministry to the virulently anti-Arab Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu Party, only to have it publicly insult the ambassador from Israel’s important regional ally, Turkey.

Later, the foreign ministry insulted the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, William Delahunt, and four other visiting members of the U.S. Congress, by refusing to see them because their visit was sponsored by J Street. Since Israel’s lobbying support traditionally comes through the U.S. Congress, this seemed inexplicitly short sighted.

Netanyahu gave the Interior Ministry to the Orthodox Shas Party, which announced the now-famous East Jerusalem housing decision just as Biden flew in to get Palestinain-Israeli talks going.

But Netanyahu cannot duck the responsibility for these acts, which may stem from Obama’s original climb down, which  the Israeli prime minister may have taken to mean  that Obama  was weak and could be defied with impunity.

Of course one could say that Obama should never have ordered a settlement freeze, but once having made it,  backing down damaged his foreign policy.

One could also say, and many Israelis do, that ultimately their own security rests on a settlement with the Palestinians.

As Britain and France found out, the cost of colonialism can become politically and strategically too high to maintain. Yet both Britain and France held on to their colonies longer than self interest would demand, and the power of the Jewish settler movement in Israel is considerable – just as was the French settler movement in Algeria.        

Netanyahu is more of a political opportunist than a Greater-Israel ideologue. But his power rests with the Israeli right, which is not yet prepared to preside over the dissolution of Israeli colonies captured in the 1967 war — even though many, perhaps most, Israelis know it has got to come.

Efforts are being made to calm down the Israeli-American confrontation. AIPAC is about to have its annual meeting, at which both Netanyahu and Clinton are scheduled to speak . The pro-Israel lobby is weighting in with a flood of opinion pieces aimed at publication in American newspapers. And a push to encourage more than a couple of dozen Congressmen to urge Obama to back down again. But Obama cannot afford to lose this one.

Yes, it would be good if tensions between Washington and Jerusalem can begin to ease, but not at the cost of  an Obama foreign policy defeat, especially  in such an important arena as the Middle East. The irony is that a Netanyahu victory in this encounter will not help Israel either, not in the long run.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.