Washington demands cancellation of settlement plans in East Jerusalem
By Jonathan Eyal
LONDON: The United States rebuffed yesterday an Israeli attempt to play down an unprecedented diplomatic rift between the two countries.
Brushing aside apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who caused offence when his ministers revealed plans to build 1,600 homes in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem just when US Vice-President Joe Biden was visiting, Washington has let it be known that it seeks the outright cancellation of the entire settlement.
The Americans, who castigated the Israeli behaviour as an 'affront' and an 'insult', refuse to believe Mr Netanyahu's assertion that it was a misunderstanding.
And for good reasons, since the method of revealing controversial settlement plans on the eve of impending peace negotiations is a familiar Israeli tactic.
During the early 1990s when then US Secretary of State James Baker shuttled throughout the Middle East seeking a settlement, Israel's government often intensified its seizure of occupied Arab lands.
Mr Netanyahu has additional reasons to rework this tactic: He heads a right-wing coalition pledged to strengthening Israel's grip over Palestinian territories. His main concern is not peace negotiations, but confronting Iran's nuclear programme and he believes that US President Barack Obama is weak.
Mr Netanyahu's strategy is, therefore, to win time by making all the right noises in Washington while sabotaging any chance for peace, in the hope that time works in Israel's favour.
Later this year, the US will be in the throes of its mid-term congressional elections, just when the pro-Israeli lobby is at its strongest. And Iran's growing defiance of the US could still persuade Washington to forget about the Palestinians.
But Mr Netanyahu's tactic misfired. An affronted Mr Biden warned that Israel's 'breach of trust' was 'galling' - language, which reportedly stunned Israeli politicians.
US officials kept up the offensive over the weekend. The Israeli Ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a pointed departure from protocol, revealed the contents of her phone call to Mr Netanyahu, whom she accused of 'undermining trust and confidence in the peace process'.
'We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend,' complained Mr Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish pressure group.
By far, however, the most important development was the shift in the American arguments. Israel is no longer accused of merely hindering peace negotiations, but of actually 'endangering America's interests', as US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley bluntly put it.
It represents a growing assessment inside the US administration that the fury now shared by all Muslim nations about America's inability to push Israel to the negotiating table actively hampers US military activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and could well cost the lives of many American soldiers.
Last month, Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, travelled to Tel Aviv to give his Israeli counterparts precisely this message: That US' strategic position in the Middle East will continue to erode if Israel refuses negotiations.
The consequences for Israel could be severe. Although it has powerful lobbies in Washington, no lobby is as important as the US military, which now sees Israel as part of the problem.
An editorial in Haaretz, one of Israel's top newspapers, reminded Mr Netanyahu yesterday of this basic reality. It said Israel 'is not America's strategic asset, but America is the source of Israel's strength'. Any Israeli leader ignores this at his peril.
[Israel is sabotaging peace. It is playing a dangerous game and the US may want to consider the strategic advantage of Israel as an ally. It cannot afford to have an "ally" that undermines peace and security.]