- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2010

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, after briefly nurturing husband Bill, is in the Middle East skirting [in pantsuits] two dangerous games of chicken.

Headlined, of course, is confrontation with Tehran’s mullahs over their nuclear ambitions. She’s there to buck up Washington’s Persian Gulf minipetrostate allies. Touring Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates earlier promised new weaponry for the shaky sheikhs who might be the first casualties if hostilities explode. But despite Mrs. Clinton’s “crippling” sanctions threat, Iran’s defiance — backed by obdurate Russian and Chinese opposition to ratcheting them up — trips the Geiger counters.

Madame secretary is skipping Israel. Just as well not to have eye-to-eye contact, what with Israel’s implied threat of a unilateral attack to slow Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s nuclear efforts. As the Obama administration keeps redrawing the “red lines” closer and closer to accepting a nuclear Iran — first enrichment, then weaponization, then delivery — the Israeli “never again” syndrome, aggravated by Tehran’s threats, swells.

That’s why part and parcel of Washington’s Iran confrontation is a parallel, nuanced tit-for-tat between Israel and Washington. On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Mr. Obama’s dramatic initiative to feature Israeli “settlements” in Occupied Territories, taken after Jerusalem’s 1967 victory, got his peacemaking efforts off to a bad start. No American, Israeli — or even Palestinian — negotiator had ever made their disposal a “sine qua non” for starting negotiations. That gambit, apparently, was dreamed up by National Security Adviser James Jones. Earlier the retired Marine general tried to draw up a minimal security agenda — for the Israelis, if you please. It didn’t take hold. And he hasn’t been heard from recently on this subject.

In any event, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grabbed the ball and ran. Sentiment has coalesced behind him for expanding suburban Jerusalem (for Israeli metrosexuals), military Jordan River strong points (for the Israel defense forces), and Judea and Samaria hilltops (for the religious). Israel’s crushing Gaza campaign at least temporarily halted Hamas’ missiles. So “Bibi” has more support than normal for an Israeli PM facing the notoriously fractious Knesset and Washington’s incessant intrigue to wangle a more pliant replacement.

Mr. Netanyahu did throw a sop to U.S. negotiators with a temporary postponement of “settlements” construction. Mrs. Clinton, stroking a sow’s ear into a silk purse in Israel last fall, labeled it an “unprecedented” concession. It’s the only one she is likely to get with Jerusalem facing bitterly divided Palestinians.

Furthermore, Mr. Netanyahu deals from a pretty tall deck. It was he, after all, as finance minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon who broke the back of the traditional Histadrut-socialist lock on the economy. Finally unleashed, old fashioned entrepreneurship has blossomed — not least in digital goods, pharmaceuticals and weaponry exports. Building an independent central bank with Stanley Fisher, a quintessential New York Citibanker and IMF veteran, Mr. Netanyahu has minced through the worldwide financial crunch better than most. The economy dipped only briefly into negative growth. There’s even been some unacknowledged spill-off for Palestinian West Bankers.

So when U.S. Special Emissary George Mitchell publicly threatened to scratch U.S. loan guarantees unless “settlements” were halted, current shoot-from-the-hip Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz brazenly countered that Israel could do without the loans — and besides, he said, they had already been negotiated for the next round. Now Mr. Mitchell leaves no footprints as he commutes around the region. In fact, Mrs. Clinton boosted into the so-called “peace process” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is more acceptable to Jerusalem.

Quietly, too, the U.S. is pressuring the Israelis through weapons transfers. Washington refuses special Israeli adaptations of F-35 joint fighter radar and has been holding back the latest helicopters. With American supply lines overstretched in two wars, Israel’s American partisans who argue there is no formal Obama administration embargo are probably correct. And, at a time when Mr. Obama’s huge congressional majority is fracturing over health care “reform,” abortion, and a growing apprehension about the fall elections, Rahm Emanuel doesn’t need a showdown with the staunch, extensive Israel lobby, mostly Democrats (and Christian evangelicals).

Still, games of chicken have a way of getting out of hand — especially in the world’s most volatile poultry roost, being fitted out with escalating weapons buildups.

• International Business Editor Sol Sanders, veteran foreign correspondent and analyst, writes weekly on the convergence of international politics and business economics.

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