Thursday, March 25, 2010

Obama Hardball Tactics On Israeli Construction Could Backfire

From CBS News, 24 March 2010, by Tom Raum, who has covered national and international affairs for The Associated Press since 1973:

WASHINGTON (AP) - Barack Obama reached out to skeptical Jewish political activists immediately after nailing down his presidential nomination in 2008, promising he would "never compromise" in his support for Israel. Now president, he risks alienating a core Democratic constituency by ratcheting up a public feud with Israel's prime minister.

Obama's demands that Israel cancel new housing construction in Palestinian areas of east Jerusalem may be backfiring. The hardball tactic clearly failed to advance prospects for restarting Middle East peace talks, and it may be undermining Obama's standing among Jewish groups in the United States.

It also enabled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a defiant stance while in Washington, to bask in warm bipartisan praise from congressional leaders and to visit the White House without having to apologize or give in to Obama's demands.

Yet Israel badly needs the United States as a strong ally. The two leaders are now caught in a high-stakes diplomatic standoff as both sides work to defuse rising tensions.

...Obama chose to take a firm stand in response to Israel's badly timed announcement - made during Vice President Joe Biden's visit earlier this month - that it was building 1,600 new housing units in east Jerusalem. Palestinians want east Jerusalem as the capital of their eventual state.

Perhaps emboldened as he moved toward a major domestic victory on health care, Obama dug in his heels and demanded a halt to the new construction. And in a break from tradition that many U.S. lawmakers saw as a snub, the White House accorded Netanyahu's visit none of the trappings usually accorded an important ally.

The news media were not allowed into any part of the 90-minuteTuesday evening meeting between the two leaders. There was no joint news conference afterward, no statements about what transpired, not even a White House-produced photograph.

Then, providing yet another irritant, officials said Wednesday the city had approved 20 new apartments for Jews in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem. The White House said it was seeking "clarification" on Israel's latest plans.

Jewish voters, one of the most active political blocs in this country, have long expressed some misgivings with Obama, a nervousness that persists today.

...Since Obama took office, his relations with Israel have been tense. He has visited the Middle East twice as president, but has yet to schedule an Israeli visit. Last fall, Netanyahu, under pressure from his right-leaning coalition, defied U.S. demands for a full freeze on settlements in the West Bank.

At best, under Obama's latest prodding, "Netanyahu will likely suspend some construction in east Jerusalem, which could pave the way for restarting Israeli-Palestinian proximity talks," said Haim Malka, a Middle East scholar for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"Even if those talks are restarted, it's uncertain how the administration intends to move those talks forward or change the strategic calculations of either side," Malka said. He said "fundamental differences" remain between the Obama administration and Netanyahu over the issues of negotiations, settlements and the fate of portions of Jerusalem captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

While Netanyahu's reception at the White House was frosty, he was widely praised on Capitol Hill.

"We in Congress stand by Israel," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said. "We have no stronger ally anywhere in the world than Israel," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. ... On what other issue ...have Pelosi and Boehner seen eye to eye?

Officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee rallied to Netanyahu's defense against the administration's scolding when he addressed the group on Tuesday. "When disagreements inevitably arise, they should be resolved privately, as is befitting close allies," said AIPAC executive director Howard Kohr...
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