By Roger Cohen
The sparring between the United States and Israel has begun, and thatâ€™s a good thing. Israelâ€™s interests are not served by an uncritical American administration. The Jewish state emerged less secure and less loved from Washingtonâ€™s post-9/11 Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy.
The criticism of the center-right government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come from an unlikely source: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sheâ€™s transitioned with aplomb from the calculation of her interests that she made as a senator from New York to a cool assessment of U.S. interests. These do not always coincide with Israelâ€™s.
I hear that Clinton was shocked by what she saw on her visit last month to the West Bank. This is not surprising. The transition from Israelâ€™s first-world hustle-bustle to the donkeys, carts and idle people beyond the separation wall is brutal. If Clinton cares about one thing, itâ€™s human suffering.
In fact, you donâ€™t so much drive into the Palestinian territories these days as sink into them. Everything, except the Jewish settlersâ€™ cars on fenced settlers-only highways, slows down. The buzz of business gives way to the clunking of hammers.
The whole desolate West Bank scene is punctuated with garrison-like settlements on hilltops. If youâ€™re looking for a primer on colonialism, this is not a bad place to start.
Most Israelis never see this, unless theyâ€™re in the army. Clinton witnessed it. She was, I understand, troubled by the humiliation around her.
Now, she has warned Netanyahu to get off â€œthe sidelinesâ€ with respect to Palestinian peace efforts. Remember that the Israeli prime minister and his right-wing Likud party have still not accepted even the theory of a two-state solution.
In House testimony last week, Clinton said: â€œFor Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-Ã -vis Iran, it can t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts. They go hand in hand.â€
That was a direct rebuke to comments from Netanyahu aides who told the Washington Post Israel would not move on peace talks until it sees the United States check Iranâ€™s nuclear program and rising regional influence.
Although I donâ€™t agree with the forms of linkage being made by Netanyahu and Clinton between Iran and an Israeli-Palestinian peace â€” the issue is not how to threaten Iran but how to bring it inside the tent â€” I agree with both of them that a link exists. At Madrid, at Oslo and at Annapolis, over a 16-year span, attempts were made to advance peace while excluding Iran. That doesnâ€™t work; it wonâ€™t work now.
The trick is to usher Israel-Palestine peace efforts and the quest for a U.S.-Iran rapprochement along in parallel.
Thatâ€™s why itâ€™s so important that Clinton told Netanyahu that he canâ€™t slip away from working for peace â€” and that means stopping settlements now â€” by taking an Iran detour.
Clinton also indicated an important shift on Hamas, which the State Department calls a terrorist group. While stressing that no funds would flow to Hamas â€œor any entity controlled by it,â€ she argued for keeping American options open on a possible Palestinian unity government between the moderate Fatah and Hamas.
So long as a unity government meets three conditions â€” renounces violence, recognizes Israelâ€™s right to exist and abides by past agreements â€” the United States would be prepared to deal with it, including on $900 million in proposed aid, Clinton indicated. Washington does business with a Lebanese government in which Hezbollah controls 11 of 30 seats, although Hezbollah is also deemed a terrorist group.
Such a changed U.S. policy makes a lot more sense than the previous one, which insisted on Hamas itself â€” rather than any Palestinian unity government â€” meeting the three conditions. No peace can be made by pretending Hamas does not exist, which is why advancing Palestinian unity must be a U.S. priority.
This sensible shift will anger Israel, although it deals indirectly with Hamas through Egypt. Israelâ€™s de jure stand on Hamas â€” that it must recognize Israel before any talks begin â€” is wildly at odds with Israelâ€™s de facto methodology since 1948.
So itâ€™s a week in which I cheer Clinton, although her reference to â€œcrippling sanctionsâ€ against Iran if the proposed rapprochement fails was a mistake. Sanctions havenâ€™t worked and wonâ€™t.
Tehran will not come to the table if it sees Obamaâ€™s extended hand as just a deceptive prelude to â€œcripplingâ€ measures. My advice to Tehran: watch what Obama says. Heâ€™s driving Iran policy.
Obamaâ€™s doing it in a way that means the Israeli-American friction evident in Clintonâ€™s remarks will be a theme of his first year in office. As Lee Hamilton, the president of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told me: â€œInitiatives are underway that show the United States is going to have some major differences with Israel.â€
He also said Netanyahu is â€œa little more flexible than maybe heâ€™s given credit for.â€
Netanyahu as Begin the peacemaker? Itâ€™s not impossible. Nor is Obama to Tehran. Provided the president pushes on the two fronts at once.