The first rays of sun for that new day came even earlier, on Christmas Eve when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid mustered the 60 Senate votes needed to push through a health bill and unexpectedly on Jan. 19 when Republican Scott Brown won a special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, thus terminating the Democrats “filibuster-proof” majority.

Though Brown’s victory was a hard political blow to the Democrats, it forced the Democrats to give up on the notion of holding their entire Senate caucus in line to approve a House-Senate compromise on health care. To salvage the reform bill – Obama’s top legislative priority – the Democrats had no choice but to shift to the majority-rule concept of reconciliation.

That, in turn, reduced the political leverage of conservative Democrats and neoconservative Independent Joe Lieberman, who may be Israel’s staunchest defender in the U.S. Congress. In other words, Lieberman no longer possessed the power to singlehandedly scuttle health-care reform.

That did not mean Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud government had lost its impressive clout in Washington. He still has many defenders inside Congress and the White House, not to mention the powerful lobbyists from the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee and the neocon pundits who remain dominant at major U.S. news outlets, such as the Washington Post.

But Lieberman and other neocons could no longer treat Obama’s health-care initiative as a kind of hostage in danger of being sacrificed if the President took too hard a line against Likud’s intransigence on peace talks.

Netanyahu got a taste of Obama’s new freedom this month when his government announced 1,600 new Jewish housing units in East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit.

The announcement drew an immediate rebuke from Biden and a half-hearted apology from Netanyahu (on the timing but not the substance). But what happened next was perhaps most surprising. Instead of thanking Netanyahu for his partial apology, the Obama administration escalated the confrontation.

On Obama’s personal orders, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toughened the U.S. phrasing, personally upbraiding Netanyahu over the phone. Soon, U.S. officials were going on background to describe a “crisis” in U.S.-Israeli relations. Netanyahu and his American neocon supporters were stunned.

On March 16, the Washington Post’s lead editorial spoke for the neocon community by decrying Obama’s reaction.

“It has been a little startling – and a little puzzling – to see Mr. Obama deliberately plunge into another public brawl with the Jewish state,” the Post editorialists wrote. “The dispute’s dramatic escalation … seems to have come at the direct impetus of Mr. Obama.

“Officials said he outlined points for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to make in a searing, 45-minute phone call to Netanyahu. … Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod heaped on more vitriol, saying in a television appearance that the settlement announcement had been an ‘affront’ and an ‘insult’ that had ‘undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region.’”

Blame-America-First’

The Post’s “blame-America-first” editorial, which was echoed by other neocons, appeared intended to shock Obama back to his senses. With the tough pushback, Obama perhaps was expected to make a hasty retreat.

Whether that assessment of Obama as a spineless politician who can be easily pushed around is correct or not remains to be seen. In many circles, that view of him became conventional wisdom during his first year in office as he struggled with passing health-care reform and shied away from a direct confrontation with Netanyahu over Israel’s settlement expansion.

In recent months, however, Obama and some of his team grew increasingly frustrated with what they perceived as the obstructionism of Netanyahu’s government and the growing extremism of his Shas coalition partners. Shas officials have begun advocating an apartheid-style society that not only separates Jews from Arabs, but also would keep secular Jews out of ultra-Orthodox areas.

This growing power of Israel’s extremist “settler” political bloc suggested that chances for a reasonable peace accord were receding, not improving. There were also prospects for a wider regional war if Netanyahu tried to mouse-trap the United States into a military confrontation with Iran by launching a first strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In assessing his first year in office, Obama cited the lack of progress on Middle East peace as one of his biggest disappointments.

However, the U.S. political dynamic was changing. Once the Senate passed its health-care bill and Brown’s victory forced the Democrats to turn to a reconciliation bill to make changes in the Senate version, Lieberman lost his life-or-death grip on health care.

So, when Shas officials in the Housing Ministry thumbed their nose at Vice President Biden – whether as an intentional snub or because they simply didn’t care what the Americans thought – Obama decided to escalate the confrontation to show he was unwilling to play the patsy any longer.

As the health-care struggle now enters its end game, Obama may finally get to demonstrate whether he really intends to renew the U.S. commitment to peace in the Middle East.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.  

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