Israel's Prime Minister has often tried, and succeeded, in having it both ways on the question of a peace deal – talking to the US, in vague but emollient tones, about a two-state solution while palming off his right-wing allies with pledges of more Jewish settlements on the West Bank.
The escalating row between Benjamin Netanyahu and the US suggests this strategy is now starting to unravel. Hillary Clinton's heated discussions with Mr Netanyahu at the weekend showed that the Obama administration feels that Israel has crossed a red line by announcing plans to build thousands more Jewish homes in East Jerusalem, and by releasing that inflammatory information when the US Vice-President, Joe Biden, was in town to restart stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Mr Netanyahu's latest contribution, a suggestion that everyone should "calm down", has not helped matters, by sounding patronising. There is no disputing the virtue of calmness, but the real obstacle to fresh talks between Israelis and Palestinians is not excess emotion; it is the Israeli's leader's reluctance to alienate his right-wing coalition allies by spelling out exactly what he is prepared to pay for peace.
Like many in Israel, and on the political right in the US, Mr Netanyahu may be banking on Mr Obama turning out to be a one-term president; a leader to be endured until a more ardently pro-Israeli Republican takes back the White House. That offers one explanation for Israel's almost deliberate-looking humiliation of the President. But if this is the strategy – to appeal over Mr Obama's head to a right-wing audience in America – it is fraught with risk.
The strength of Israel's alliance with the US has depended on its bipartisan character, which meant Israel not taking sides between Democrats and Republicans. The danger of Mr Netanyahu's approach is that Democrats may start to see Israel not as the great friend of America but as the great friend of the Republicans, which will change the entire dynamics of the alliance. It may be that in a few years' time the US will have another Republican president, in which case Israel can presumably restart settlement activity without any apology. But it should not bank on such an outcome at this stage.Reuse content