NETANYAHU IN WASHINGTON: A COMMENT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was poised to end a troubled U.S. visit on Wednesday with little sign he had settled a dispute with the White House over Jewish housing construction in East Jerusalem.
President Barack Obama was seeking goodwill gestures from Israel to persuade Palestinians to return to peace talks even as new settlement expansion plans on disputed land in Jerusalem threatened further strains between Washington and its close ally.
"The president asked the prime minister to take steps to build confidence for proximity talks so that progress can be made toward comprehensive peace," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters, referring to indirect negotiations.
"There are areas of agreement and there are areas of disagreement," he said without elaborating.
Palestinians have demanded a complete settlement freeze in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Netanyahu has cautioned that accepting their terms for reviving negotiations, in the format of U.S.-mediated, indirect talks, could put peace efforts on hold for another year.
The Israeli leader, who held a low-key meeting at the White House on Tuesday with Obama, was engaged in an all-day effort to ease the dispute with Washington before his departure home.
Obama's Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met Netanyahu at the prime minister's hotel, and Israeli and U.S. officials convened on the sidelines, but both sides gave no public sign of a breakthrough on the tinderbox settlement issue.
U.S. officials have tried to get Israel to agree to suspend further Jewish home construction in East Jerusalem and to consent to discuss core issues such as borders and the status of Jerusalem in the U.S.-sponsored "proximity" negotiations.
Netanyahu, who began a three-day visit to Washington on Monday, heads a coalition government dominated by pro-settler parties, including his own.
He has pledged not to curb Jewish housing in East Jerusalem, saying he enjoyed wide public support in Israel for that policy, followed by all Israeli governments since 1967....
Undeterred by turbulence in U.S.-Israeli relations, Israel earlier on Wednesday confirmed plans for a further expansion of the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem, with more building approved.
Gibbs said U.S. officials were seeking clarification after a Jerusalem city official, in a move that angered Palestinians, said final approval was given to develop a flashpoint neighborhood from which Palestinians were evicted last year.
U.S. and Israeli officials have sought to get relations back on track after a separate plan to build 1,600 homes for Jews in Ramat Shlomo, a settlement on West Bank land that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the 1967 war, was announced two weeks ago during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden".
"U.S. presses Israel for Mideast goodwill steps," in www.reuters.com
"President Barack Obama is back in the driver's seat. It's not just the historic victory on health care.
In responding sharply to Israel's announcement that it was going ahead with 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, the U.S. president strengthened his hand abroad and at home. Though greater difficulties loom in the Middle East, the president can now address them from a position of strength.
This is a change. Early on, the administration misplayed its hand on settlement construction. By demanding a freeze, including East Jerusalem, the administration asked for something it couldn't get. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defied the U.S. - and a shocked White House saw it had no way of making it stick.
That fiasco, the biggest foreign policy mistake by the administration, left Middle East policy in disarray.
The ambitious administration plan to make Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts a centerpiece of foreign policy fell apart. For the next year, the administration worked to rebuild its position and its prestige for a fresh try.
This explains why the administration had to respond strongly to the ill-timed Israeli housing announcement during Vice President Joe Biden's visit this month. After a humiliating defeat on this issue last year, Washington could not give the impression that Israel was able to abuse it at will.
Washington's ability to extract concessions from the Arabs, much less to pressure Iran, depends on a perception of U.S. strength. The more the Israelis kicked sand in America's face, the more the administration looked like a 98-pound weakling.
Obama grasped that, this time, it was the Israelis who had gone too far.
Whether the timing of the Ramat Shlomo housing announcement was intentional, Israel's failure to coordinate on such a sensitive subject was a blunder. It damaged its closest ally....
Obama saw the opportunity and took it. In a 43-minute telephone call described as "blistering," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave Netanyahu a list of things he needed to do to get the relationship back on track.
The screw tightened as David Axelrod denounced Israel's "insult." Next, the White House announced that Middle East negotiator George Mitchell's trip to Israel was "delayed" for mysterious "technical" reasons.
Faced with this combination, the Israelis have moved to calm Washington's ire. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners are to be released and the blockade of Gaza relaxed. But on Jerusalem, the Israelis reiterated their longtime position that East Jerusalem is part of Israel and no one can tell the Israelis whether or not to build there....
This is a big diplomatic victory for Obama, one that will significantly enhance his authority overseas. Picking a fight with an Israeli prime minister the week before AIPAC's meeting in Washington will strike many foreigners as a gutsy move".
Walter Russell Mead, "Obama Re-charged US-Mideast Policy," 23 March 2010, in www.cfr.org
Poor Walter Russell Mead! This I shall say intelligent and distinguished historian of American Foreign Relations, unfortunately spoke way too soon in prematurely dressing-up, what amounted to a token slap on the wrist by the American government on Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu over the issue of settlements in East Jerusalem. As per Reuters, notwithstanding another (no doubt coincidental) announcement of more Israeli settlements being approved in the same locality yesterday evening, the Israeli Prime Minister was not in any way punished or bullied by his American counter-part in their meeting yesterday. Leave no doubt: I am quite sure that the American administration would truly love to see the back of the current Israeli leadership, and, vice-`a-versa. Just as the Clinton Administration, as revealed in the memoirs of its insiders, would have loved to have dealt not with Netanyahu but with either Rabin or Peres. Be that as it may, the fact of the matter is that Netanyahu is in the Prime Ministerial chair, and, he is likely to remain there for quite awhile. Certainly for another year at the very least. And, as his time in office has shown so far, both most recently and in the late nineties, he is an extremely adept diplomatic tactician, as it relates to interacting with his American counter-parts. So far, it seems as if the Israeli leader has been able to run miles around the current American administration, just as he did back in the Clinton years. Nothing that I have read so far, indicates that his trip to Washington, DC and his talks in the White House has caused him to backtrack one bit, from his stated policy on settlements or in talks with the Palestinian Authority. Indeed, as per the anti-Netanyahu, Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, the Israeli Premier stated at one meeting, according to an American observer that:
"'I think at one point the prime minister added that he did not see a distinction necessarily between building in Jerusalem and building in Tel Aviv. We disagree with that,'a White House spokesman said ahead of the meeting".
"Netanyahu and Mitchell meeting after tense White House Talks," 24 March 2010, in www.haaretz.com.
With 'opponents' like the current American Administration, Netanyahu can hardly be blamed to feel that he has nothing to worry about from the USA as it concerns Israeli policy. For good or for ill.