Netanyahu faces 'difficult choices' going into AIPAC speech

Going into his AIPAC speech today, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces stern US warnings, Palestinian exasperation, and a fractious coalition government and rising violence back home.

By , Staff writer

Monday's speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to AIPAC – Washington's largest pro-Israel lobby – comes as the US-Israel relationship has been on unusually rocky ground. Palestinian groups have seemed on the verge of a third intifada or uprising against Israel, and the world is waiting to see whether the leaders will go forward with renewed talks.

With all of this hanging in the balance, Mr. Netanyahu faces a meeting on Tuesday with President Obama.

Back home, Netanyahu faces a fractious, right-leaning cabinet, many of whose members don't share his vows to bring about a two-state solution, the threat of more clashes in the West Bank and the possibility of renewed rocket fire from Gaza.

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That makes his audience today far greater than just those gathered at AIPAC's yearly conference, with many around the world closely watching how he will balance the competing demands of interested parties.

"He's meant to please everybody, isn't he?" quips Peter Medding, an expert on the US-Israel relationship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

"My guess is that he will say nothing that offends his coalition partners back home, nor that offends the American administration," says Medding, noting that Mr. Obama's team has asked him to reaffirm his commitment to the two-state solution after plans emerged for 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. "But we have to distinguish between words and actions. Netanyahu will make a public statements in Washington that won't offend anyone, and that will give hope to Israelis and Palestinians. But what is he actually agreeing to do once he arrives home?"

Netanyahu's 'difficult but necessary choices'

On the eve of his trip, a Netanyahu aide outlined the key points of the prime minister's speech. These include a commitment to moving forward in peace talks with an aim of achieving Palestinian statehood, taking "courageous steps for peace," and a series of confidence-building measures, the aide said.

Netanyahu, however, reiterated his refusal to limit building in East Jerusalem in comments he made Sunday just before his trip to Washington.

He told his cabinet that building in Jerusalem, where Palestinians envision the capital of their future state, was the same as building in Tel Aviv. Israel annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 following its conquering in the Middle East, an extension of sovereignty that no other major power recognizes, including the United States.

Earlier Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made clear in her speech to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that the US views Israel's decision to build in East Jerusalem as an obstacle to peace talks.

"New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need," Clinton said. "It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region could hope to exploit." Clinton added that peace will "require all parties, including Israel, to make difficult but necessary choices."

The latest flare-up in US-Israel relations was spurred when one of Netanyahu's cabinet members announced the building of 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem in the middle of US Vice President Joe Biden's visit two weeks ago.

That was largely because Netanyahu's Interior Ministry is controlled by the increasingly right-wing party Shas, which has become a fervent advocate of settling Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. If Netanyahu makes a deal promising to stop settlement in Jerusalem, Shas and other rightist parties might try to bolt from his coalition – leaving him without a government. But, analysts note, Netanayhu could always remake his government by going into a coalition with the centrist Kadima party.

Mitchell: 'Calm and quiet' needed now

By the end of the week, Obama administration officials are hoping that they might persuade Palestinians to stick with an agreement reached just before Biden's visit to renew talks with Israel. US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell met in Amman on Monday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to try to bring him closer to an agreement to speak, albeit indirectly, with Israel on the so-called final-status issues – including Jerusalem.

The Palestinian position over the past year or more has remained steady, with Abbas refusing to engage in talks without a freeze on settlement construction, not just in the West Bank, but in East Jerusalem as well.

Mitchell expressed his signature optimism and called for restraint from both sides in the face of more violence threatening on the horizon.

"On behalf of the United States and the president, I urge all sides to exercise restraint. What is needed now is a period of calm and quiet, in which we can go forward in the efforts we are engaged," Mitchell told reporters after meeting President Abbas, Reuters reported.

Hamas committed to cease-fire, but other militants antsy

Renegade Palestinian factions in Gaza, however, seem less than interested in Mitchell's message of restraint, and the Israeli military has responded in kind, raising concerns of the de facto but unofficial cease-fire breaking down. A small Palestinian militant launched a Qassam rocket at Israel on Sunday, and Israel launched a retaliatory air strike on Monday at Gaza's smuggling tunnels.

One of the commanders of the Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas, said that the cease-fire still holds and that Hamas has chastised those who were breaking it out of frustration over events in Jerusalem and the West Bank. Four Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the Nablus area over the weekend.

"After the wave of violence and the Israeli escalation in Jerusalem, many of the militants of the Palestinian factions fired rockets on their own accord, superseding the national consensus that was agreed upon between Hamas and all the other factions to stop firing rockets," explained the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammed.

"We know that everyone's angry about what happened in Jerusalem, but we are still committed to the national consensus of ceasing the firing of rockets," he said.

--- Safwat al-Kahlout in Gaza City contributed to this report.

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