- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2010

When Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, the setting, overall message and applause lines will be mostly the same as during other recent visits by various high-level U.S. officials to the pro-Israel lobby.

Although it might look normal, it won’t be.

Over the past decade, elected officials of all levels have appeared before AIPAC to receive warm applause for extolling the virtues of the unique bond shared by the U.S. and Israel. Given that the George W. Bush years marked a bipartisan strengthening of an already close relationship, most elected officials enjoyed friendly receptions simply for agreeing with the broad political consensus.

This year, though, will find Mrs. Clinton striving to reassure both an important domestic constituency and a crucial international ally that the Obama administration remains committed to the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel. Her speech will aim to help repair the fallout from the rather puzzling diplomatic storm that followed a minor announcement last week about housing construction in an existing Jewish community in Jerusalem - the administration’s first major action on the Middle East.

No matter the applause she receives - and there will be plenty, even if many will pointedly refuse to cheer her - the Obama administration faces an uphill climb on both counts.

Political concerns, though, should not be the administration’s priority, as the amped-up rhetoric has done real harm to the “peace process” by damaging the trust with the Israeli government while also giving Palestinians a much-desired excuse to back out of the planned “proximity talks.” More important, the fixation and verbal assault on Israel’s zoning announcement could send precisely the wrong signals to the Arab world about the importance of thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In most envisioned playbooks about talks brokered by the U.S., “progress” will be made when the U.S. nudges Israel to accept some concession or drop a certain demand. Given the blowup over an ill-timed announcement, however, the Israeli government will be leery of acceding to any U.S. demands, believing that whatever compromises might be struck could be rendered meaningless as soon as President Obama becomes angry again.

It was not lost on Israeli officials that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went against the wishes of his own coalition government earlier this year in accepting a 10-month freeze on all development in the West Bank, which even Mrs. Clinton at the time recognized as a major step forward. Jerusalem was not included in the freeze, however, as Arabs continue building in their communities and no “peace” scenario would involve uprooting established Jewish neighborhoods from the capital city, anyway.

Making matters worse from an Israeli perspective is that the housing project in question is in an established Jewish neighborhood in northern Jerusalem, which is nestled between two other Jewish areas and does not even encroach on an Arab community. Nor would ground be broken on the project for likely another three years.

As ill-timed as the announcement was, coming during Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s visit, Israeli officials were stun- ned by the ferocity of the U.S. response. After arriving 90 minutes late for his dinner with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Biden unleashed the strongest word in the diplomatic arsenal, “condemning” the Jewish state for the housing developments.

Just when it appeared the matter had cooled following Mr. Biden’s acceptance March 11 of Mr. Netanyahu’s apology, Mrs. Clinton reportedly “dressed down” the Israeli prime minister the next day. In tandem with this, the State Department leaked that the relationship itself was “at risk.”

Then the administration went one step further, impugning the motives of the Jewish state. Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod took to the Sunday talk shows to proclaim that Israel’s poorly timed announcement “seemed calculated to undermine” the very “proximity talks” that Israel has been promoting all along.

While Israeli officials have been quick to accept the warm words that followed the days-long dust-up, there must be lingering concern about the implicit message delivered to the Arab world and the rest of the international community.

The Obama administration has yet to confront Tehran despite missing several deadlines, and no sanctions regime is even close to enactment. Killing innocent democracy protesters in the street and flouting international demands about the Iranian mullahs’ nuclear program have not prompted nearly the level of protest and hand-wringing from the Obama administration as did Israel’s zoning decision.

No matter how many applause lines Mrs. Clinton delivers at AIPAC with aplomb, the damage of the past week cannot and will not be undone in a single speech. If the fallout is limited to setting back progress on talks that likely wouldn’t have yielded much anyway, then Israel will consider itself lucky.

But if the dramatic overreaction in any way undermines efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the damage will be far worse than anyone would have wanted.

Joel Mowbray is an investigative journalist living in New York City.

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