Players in Mideast Madness trade barbs and reassurances

It’s March Madness in the Middle East: The U.S. and Israel are trading private barbs and public reassurances after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defiant re-election victory, just as the U.S. is nearing a nuclear deal with Israel’s chief adversary, Iran.

It’s a volatile situation, with the Obama administration signaling its opposition to Netanyahu’s campaign statements rejecting a Palestinian state. This will be a political collision as well as a diplomatic one, after the GOP’s raucous cheers that greeted Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3 blasting President Obama’s Iran policy.

An early signal of Obama’s displeasure came Wednesday, when White House press secretary Josh Earnest criticized Netanyahu’s election-day warning to Israeli voters about high Arab turnout. “Rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive,” Earnest volunteered, unbidden by any reporter’s question.

Netanyahu backed off his election rhetoric, telling NBC’s Andrea Mitchell Thursday he wanted “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution” if “circumstances … change.” As he spoke, Israelis were aware that the White House was considering a range of possible actions to demonstrate its anger. After the conciliatory interview was broadcast, the White House disclosed that Obama had called Netanyahu to congratulate him on his victory.

The soothing public words came on a day when the White House was privately weighing a roster of pressure tactics, including:

Drafting a new U.N. Security Council resolution outlining the framework for a Palestinian state. Such a resolution might summarize the parameters that emerged during Secretary of State John Kerry’s negotiations with Israelis and Palestinians that collapsed last year.

Deterring Netanyahu’s plans to expand settlements in the West Bank, perhaps through warnings in a planned report to Congress on loan guarantees to Israel. President George H.W. Bush briefly cut off loan guarantees in 1991 to protest settlements, creating a political uproar but no lasting success in halting settlements.

Altering current U.S. policy that opposes Palestinian efforts to take complaints against Israel to the International Criminal Court. Similarly, the U.S. might relax its pressure against European allies that are advocating sanctions against Israel.

Weighing future vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israeli settlements or other activity. In the past, U.S. use of the veto to support Israeli positions has been all but automatic.

Adoption of any of these measures would open a wide and potentially destabilizing breach between the two allies, and the administration’s consideration of them now is probably partly tactical. Officials want to nudge Netanyahu toward more moderate positions as he seeks to form a new governing coalition — and get him to continue backing away from the hard-line statements he made during the fervor of the campaign.

Netanyahu’s comments to Mitchell tried to defuse the post-election tension. But it’s not clear this is as explicit a repudiation as the White House wants.

The Iran negotiations nearing a climax in Switzerland could spike the fever in U.S.-Israeli relations even higher. But here, the Israelis have recently hinted privately that they could live with a deal, even one that allows Iran to enrich some uranium, so long as it has tough provisions to cap Iran’s nuclear program and verify compliance. Netanyahu has also floated the idea that Iran’s nuclear capability should be constrained until it halts terrorism, stops regional subversion and accepts Israel’s existence.

U.S. officials are preparing a post-Iran-agreement agenda for calming Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia. But the priority should be strengthening the Sunni nations to counter Iranian meddling, rather than sweet-talking them. The Saudis and others are understandably frightened by a rising Iran, because of Tehran’s aggressive actions in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

If there’s ever to be a security balance in the region, the Sunni nations must become strong enough to offset Iranian power. A stable and more confident Egypt would help stiffen the Sunni backbone.

In a post-deal world, we can also expect Iranian hard-liners to show that their power in the region is unaffected. We can see harbingers in Iraq, as Gen. Qassem Suleimani from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard leads Shiite militias into battle to retake the Sunni city of Tikrit. Suleimani is pushing hard; the U.S. will need to curb his hegemony if it hopes to maintain Sunni support.

Looking at the policy challenges that converge for Obama this month, he might consider a strategy of ambiguity mastered over the years by Iran — engaging nations even as it challenges them. Conflict is not an on-off switch in the Middle East. It’s often in both positions at once.

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