Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Obama cooks up a "crisis"

From CBS, 15 March 2010, by Dan Raviv:

... some believe that President Obama seems intent on making [diappointment over Israel's announcement of an expansion of a Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem] even more bitter -- not less -- in what seems like an effort to change the government coalition in Jerusalem.

Trying to meddle in a foreign country's internal politics is like playing with fire, but in the cause of pushing for progress toward Israeli-Arab peace it looks to many as though Obama is brandishing a big box of matches and a large jerrycan of gasoline. Instead of calming suddenly choppy seas between Washington and Jerusalem, he is demanding that Israel instantly make some concessions that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may consider politically impossible.

The State Department spokesman, P.J. Crowley, today confirmed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Netnayahu for specific commitments - but Crowley refused to say what is being requested. This follows the annoying timing of Israel's government announcing an expansion of a Jewish neighborhood in the captured eastern half of Jerusalem -- just when Vice President Joe Biden was visiting Israel last week...

...As soon as tomorrow, Obama's Middle East mediator, former senator George Mitchell, is to launch a new round of talks - though not face-to-face - between Netanyahu and the Palestinian leader in the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas.

According to senior Israeli sources, the Obama administration is demanding that Israel take some steps that Netanyahu would find difficult if he is to keep key right-wing political parties in his coalition:

1.) Fully explain why the housing announcement was made while Biden was in Jerusalem, and take bureaucratic steps to ensure that top-level U.S. officials are not similarly taken by surprise in the future.

2.) Declare that talks with the Palestinians should quickly turn to the deepest issues: refugees, borders of a new Palestinian state, Jerusalem's status, how to share water, the fate of settlements, and future rights for refugees.

3.) Make a major gesture to Abbas, aimed at strengthening Yasser Arafat's highly challenged successor, such as the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

4.) Reverse the decision to approve 1,600 new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem.

Looking closely at that list - as Israeli officials are surely doing -- it seems that if Netanyahu is to preserve his coalition he could perhaps acceptably answer #1, dance around #2, surely go along with #3, but never agree to #4 because Israel annexed the parts of Jerusalem it captured in 1967 and insists that the whole city is the Jewish State's capital.

A religious Jewish party named Shas would bolt. New elections might be required.

Few tears would be shed in official Washington if Netanyahu is forced out. It does not seem that he has gotten along warmly with Obama, certainly nothing like George W. Bush's warm friendship with Ariel Sharon, and the extent to which they agree on how to confront Iran's nuclear program remains veiled in ambiguity.

Netanyahu might not fall from power, if he backs off on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. Perhaps the Shas party and other right-wingers would leave the coalition, but a larger moderate party - Kadima - might join and preserve Netanyahu's majority in the Knesset (the parliament)...

...and from The Miami Herald, 15 March 2010, by SHEERA FRENKEL, McClatchy Newspapers:

...Ramat Shlomo has become the most contentious building project in Jerusalem, and it's at the center of what Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren calls the "most severe crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations" in decades.

...Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, under pressure from his largely conservative coalition to press on with the project, on Monday told his Likud Party that settlement building would continue on land that Israel won from its Arab neighbors in the 1967 Six-Day War.

"Construction will continue in Jerusalem as this has been the case over the past 42 years," Netanyahu said.

Israel Interior Minister Eli Yishai - whose ministry decided to announce the plan during Biden's visit - echoed Netanyahu, stating that "there is no construction freeze in Jerusalem, nor will there be one ...We're sorry the Americans found the timing offending, but there is no freeze in Jerusalem..." ...

...Republican members of Congress ..joined the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main pro-Israel lobbying organization, in condemning the administration's stance.

"To say that I am deeply concerned with the irresponsible comments that the White House, vice president and the secretary of state have made against Israel is an understatement," said House Republican Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia. He added that the crisis with Israel "jeopardizes America's national security."

Netanyahu is convening an inner forum of his cabinet to review a list of demands that Clinton made over the weekend, according to the Hebrew-language press.

Israeli officials refused to discuss the existence of such a list, but Hebrew-language papers said the U.S. expects Netanyahu to revoke the Ramat Shlomo decision and make significant gestures towards the Palestinians to restart peace talks.

The U.S. also is asking Israel to establish a committee to investigate whether the timing of the announcement was truly a mistake or meant to embarrass the US.

Meanwhile, residents in Ramat Shlomo are pressing the government to ignore the international criticism and break ground on the new units....

...and from The ABC (Australia), 16 March 2010, by North America correspondent Lisa Millar:

Netanyahu defies US over settlement
The US State Department is trying to play down the rift with Israel, describing the two countries as strategic allies despite a dispute over Jewish settlements.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the construction of 1,600 new homes will go ahead in east Jerusalem despite US condemnation.

...US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley [said] "Israel is a strategic ally of the United States and will continue to be so..."
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