TEL AVIV -- Despite American and Israeli efforts to calm down the stormy crisis between them over the continued building in East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now skating on very thin ice.
With more details emerging daily, it has become clear that Netanyahu was practically "ambushed" by U.S. President Barack Obama. Snubbed and humiliated by Obama's cool reception at the White House -- no red-carpet treatment, photo-op or joint appearance before the journalists -- Netanyahu became convinced that Israel is now facing a major change in American Middle Eastern policy.
Obama chose a path of compromise between two approaches within his White House senior staff: The national security adviser General James Jones, who supports an "imposed solution"; and the approach of the Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, who prefers direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, with the U.S. submitting bridging solutions, "at the appropriate time".
Obama would still have Mitchell shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, but he now wants to know in advance what Israel's position is on 10 issues, four of them relating to Jerusalem. For example, Obama wants Netanyahu to reopen the Palestinian Chamber of Commerce in East Jerusalem, to stop demolishing Arab houses that were built without the required permits and to guarantee in writing no new Jewish building projects in East Jerusalem, including in Ramat Shlomo, that sparked the crisis.
As part of confidence building measures, Obama asked for the release of Palestinian prisoners, removal of additional roadblocks in the West Bank and easing the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
But the most difficult of Obama's demands was the insistence that Israel draws its own perception of its final borders, security and demilitarization and the Palestinian refugees. Israel believes that these subjects should be left to the direct negotiations and not to be imposed. Obama wants to have Israel's answers in Mitchell's pocket, before he resumes his proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians, some time in April.
In an effort to isolate Israel internationally, Obama briefed French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, on his demands from Netanyahu and he even sent a copy to the Arab Summit, that ended Sunday two days of deliberations in Libya.
The 22nd summit approved the resumption of Mitchell's shuttle diplomacy, despite Syrian President Bashar Assad's call to abandon the diplomatic effort and to resume the intifada in the West Bank. Assad didn't wait for a response, returning to Damascus without even shaking Abbas' hands. The approval of the league's endorsement of the political channel was with one reservation: That there will be a reassessment of this decision in October. Should the stalemate continue, the Arabs will put an end to Mitchell's mission.
The Arab choice of October is not accidental. By the end of September, Israel is expected to decide whether to extend the 10-month moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank. The U.S., Europe, Russia and the Arab countries want the moratorium extended with no time limit.
Facing this complex situation, Israel will have to decide immediately after Passover how to answer Obama. Both Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, said on Sunday that Israel can agree to "some" of Obama's demands "but not to all of them." They didn't elaborate, although Barak admitted that Jerusalem is the most contested issue between Israel and the U.S. Barak urged Netanyahu to present Obama with an Israeli peace initiative. In his opinion, Israel needed to strive for the establishment of a "demilitarized" Palestinian state, with a viable territorial continuity.
Barak, however, agrees with Netanyahu that sensitive problems, like final borders, Palestinian refugees, Jerusalem and the settlement blocs in the West Bank should come up only during direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel should refuse any notion that the U.S. would negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.
Samuel Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent