Monday, March 15, 2010

World Watch: Signs Mount of U.S. Losing Patience With Israel Over Settlements

In Unusually Blunt Language -- The Strongest U.S. Rebuke of Israel in More Than 20 Years -- Biden Blasts Israel's Decision to Build New Housing for Jews in Arab Neighborhood of East Jerusalem, Warning That They 'Undermine' Not Only Mideast Peace Process, But Also U.S. War Effort in Iraq and Afghanistan

Biden and Netanyahu

NOT ON THE SAME PAGE -- Vice President Joe Biden (left) meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the vice president's trip last week to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. The grim expressions on their faces tell the story: Biden, angered by Israel's announcement that it was building new housing for Jews in a predominantly Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, reportedly blasted Israeli officials during a private meeting, condemning the decision as "undermining" the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. But the vice president went further, reportedly raising -- for the first time -- the specter of Israeli actions causing serious problems for U.S. forces fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Photo: Getty Images)

(Posted 5:00 a.m. EDT Monday, March 15, 2010)


Inter-Press Service

"Condemn" is not a word that rolls trippingly off the tongue of a U.S. politician addressing anything having to do with actions, however objectionable, by Israel.

So it was no surprise that close observers of U.S. Middle East policy sat up a lot straighter in their seats when Vice President Joe Biden used the word -- not once, but twice -- during his visit to Israel last week in reference to the Israeli Interior Ministry's announcement that it intends to build 1,600 new housing units for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

"I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," said Biden, considered among Israel's staunchest supporters during his several decades in Congress.

"The substance and timing of the announcement, particularly with the launching of [U.S.-mediated] proximity talks [between Israel and the Palestine Authority], is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now...," the vice president continued.


In a remarkable show of displeasure, Biden subsequently kept Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waiting 90 minutes before joining him for an official dinner and, according to Israeli press accounts, gave top Israeli officials a private tongue-lashing over how such actions by the Jewish state incite Islamic extremism across the Arab world and beyond.

Forty-eight hours later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, clearly rejecting Netanyahu's apology over the "unfortunate coincidence" of the Interior Ministry's announcement with Biden's arrival, joined the fray.

According to her spokesman, P.J. Crowley, Clinton telephoned the prime minister Friday morning "to reiterate the United States' strong objections to Tuesday's announcement, not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance."

"The secretary said she could not understand how this had happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security," Crowley told reporters. "And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process."


The rebukes -- which some Mideast veterans described as the harshest directed toward Israel by senior U.S. officials since the presidency of George H.W. Bush more than 20 years ago -- have revived questions over whether President Obama is prepared to get tough with the Netanyahu government, the most hard-line in Israel's history, particularly over the issue of settlements.

Early in its tenure, the Obama administration demanded a halt to all new Jewish settlement activity on Palestinian territory in order to get serious peace talks with the Palestinian Authority underway.

That demand, however, was rebuffed by Netanyahu, who countered with a partial 10-month settlement freeze that explicitly excluded East Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War has been rejected by all other members of the United Nations, with most countries -- including the U.S. -- maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv instead of Jerusalem.


The Obama administration's acquiescence in -- indeed, praise for -- Netanyahu's "restraint" lost it a considerable amount of credibility, particularly in the Arab world where hopes for a more even-handed U.S. approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict had been running high, especially since Obama's speech in Cairo last June.

This week's contretemps with Biden and Clinton, however, has moved the settlement issue -- and particularly the fate of East Jerusalem, whose status as the capital of any future Palestinian state is widely considered a precondition for any viable two-state solution -- front and center once again.

"It is now abundantly clear that with or without a formal declaration from Netanyahu, getting events in Jerusalem under control -- which includes a de facto full-stop settlement freeze in Jerusalem -- is no mere discretionary gesture, but a political imperative," according to Lara Friedman and Daniel Seidemann of Americans for Peace Now, the American offshoot of Israel's oldest and largest peace organization. "Failing that, this political process will be stillborn."


But it is not only the peace talks, which Obama's special envoy, George Mitchell, had labored long and hard to convene, that this week's incident has put into question. In the words of one veteran U.S. Mideast hand, Aaron David Miller, it also raised new questions over "the degree to which Israel is willing to take into account U.S. interests."

Indeed, while Biden's mission was originally aimed at publicly reassuring Israelis of Washington's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment" to their security, as he put it immediately after his arrival, the private message, especially in light of the Interior Ministry's announcement, was that Israel should reciprocate, according to an account published in the Tel Aviv daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

The Hebrew-language newspaper reported that Biden castigated Israeli officials, quoting the vice president as saying that "This is starting to get dangerous for us. What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."

"The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and U.S. policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism," the paper continued.

[An English-language translation of the Yedioth Ahronoth story was posted Thursday on In an article posted Sunday on its English-language Web site,, the Tel Aviv daily quoted Netanyahu as saying that he thought his apology to Biden over the ill-timed announcement of the East Jerusalem construction was "sufficient" and that he believed the matter was closed.]


Any assertion, particularly from a recognized "friend of Israel" like Biden, that Israeli actions against Palestinians have a negative impact on the U.S. position in the larger region -- let alone the safety of U.S. troops -- has long been anathema to the neoconservatives who held sway in the Bush administration and to conservative leaders in the American Jewish community.

But, as Biden himself said in his departure speech in Tel Aviv on Friday, "quite frankly, folks, sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth."

Washington's harsh condemnation of Israel's behavior comes just days before next weekend's annual meeting in Washington of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The meeting's organizers and Netanyahu, who will address the conference, had hoped to focus on the necessity of confronting the "existential threat" posed by Iran. But they may now find themselves in a more defensive position regarding settlements, East Jerusalem, and Israel's alleged failure to take account of the implications of its actions on U.S. interests.


Indeed, Israel's actions had the virtue, according to former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, of clarifying the strength of the settlement movement in Israeli politics.

"The momentum they can now generate stronger than Israel's demographic concerns, is stronger than fear of Israel acquiring an international pariah status, and, as was proven this week, is stronger than the needs of the U.S.-Israel relationship," Levy wrote in an op-ed column in the London-based daily The Guardian. "America's vice president has just seen this dynamic first hand and up close."

That clarity could spur Washington to take stronger action in concert with its partners, which met in New York Friday and joined the U.S. in condemning the latest settlement announcement.

"Perhaps America will present Israel with a real choice and with consequences for recalcitrance," Levy wrote. "Thus far, that has not been the case." But, "in the absence of decisive American leadership, Israel is likely to dig itself deeper into a hole, burying the last vestiges of home for pragmatic Zionism."

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Volume V, Number 15
Special Report Copyright 2010, Inter-Press Service. Republished by permission.
The 'Skeeter Bites Report Copyright 2010, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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