There's never a good time for a crisis between allies as close as the United States and Israel. But this is a particularly unfortunate moment for such a clash.
The long-anticipated "proximity" talks between Israel and the Palestine Authority were scheduled to start within days. Now they're on hold. Israel's American lobby group, AIPAC, is set to open its annual meeting in Washington this Sunday. Now who knows who'll show up?
President Mubarak of Egypt, a critical player in the moderate Arab camp which has made peace with Israel, was photographed today from a hospital in Germany having undergone ostensible gall bladder surgery, looking awful. Could Egypt be on the verge of a destabilizing change of regimes? And the Obama administration is struggling to persuade its allies to support tougher sanctions against Iran to thwart Teheran's nuclear ambitions.
Message to all sides: Enough already. Everyone needs to calm down, push the pause button, and diffuse a potentially explosive situation.
Much is at stake. "Spoilers" on all sides seem determined to make a bad situation worse. Consider the Palestinians. Ignoring the potentially incendiary consequences, they staged on Monday a "day of rage." as militant Hamas called it.
Thousands turned out in Gaza to protest the rededication of a synagogue not far from the Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam's third holiest site. Even the Palestine Authority on the West Bank condemned the re-opening of the Hurva synagogue, twice-destroyed in Arab-Israeli violence.
Daniel C Kurtzer, a vocal critic of continued Israeli settlement activity on occupied Arab land, called the Palestinian condemnation "ridiculous." "Holy places are holy and should be respected by all sides," he said.
Ditto the Palestine Authority's decision last week to dedicate a square in the West Bank town of El Bireh in the name of Dalal Mughrabi, a 19-year old woman who killed 38 people, 13 of them children, in a 1978 terrorist attack. "The veneration of terrorists says something unsettling about Palestinian society," wrote Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post.
Israel, too, needs to make amends for its ill-timed, ill-conceived decision to build 1600 new housing units, even if they are meant to be built in the Jewish part of East Jerusalem. According to the Israeli paper Ha'aretz, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton listed several initiatives that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could take to repair the damage and stop trying to "dance at two weddings," as an Israeli commentator put it.
First, plans for the housing can at the very least be put on hold. Israel, moreover, could agree to permit the proximity talks to deal with substantive, rather than just procedural issues, which Israel has been resisting. At finally, as Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman suggested in an op-ed in his paper, Bibi could fire the Interior Minister who announced the new housing, either an act of incompetence or that of a spoiler.
This latest "crisis" needs perspective. This is not the first or only moment of tension between Israel and the U.S. Consider President Eisenhower's pressure on Israel in 1957 to withdraw from territory captured in the Suez campaign, or the "reassessment" of U.S.-Israeli relations after the 1973 war when Israel resisted American demands, or the 1991 show-down when James Baker publicly gave then Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir the White House telephone number, saying he should call when he was "serious about peace."
President Obama, too, needs to do far more to allay Israel's widespread, intense suspicion of him and his motives. Israelis simply do not trust him, and that bodes ill for peace with the Arabs. They note that he has never spoken as harshly to an Iranian or Syrian leader as he has to an ostensible friend.
They deeply resent his speech in Cairo which likened Palestinian suffering to that of Jews in the Holocaust, and they note that a president who has traveled the globe since his inauguration has still not found time to visit Israel. When he wanted to repair the coldness that had set in, he sent Joe Biden.