Israeli settlements standoff with US: Netanyahu fails to defuse tensions

Two weeks after Israeli settlements touched off unusually high tensions with Israel's closest ally, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads home from Washington without a resolution.

Bernat Armangue/AP
The Jewish neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev in east Jerusalem is seen behind a section of Israel's separation barrier, Thursday. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads back home from Washington today, without a solution on Israeli settlements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads back home today after failing to defuse the US-Israel standoff sparked two weeks ago by plans for new building in East Jerusalem.

Despite attempts by aides on the eve of Netanyahu's visit to portray the crisis as having blown over, political allies and analysts acknowledged that his meeting with President Barack Obama and others in Washington did little to assuage US concerns.

"There's no doubt that there's a disagreement which is not simple, and that touches the issues that are closest to us like Jerusalem … it's not easy for us,'' said Culture Minister Limor Livnat, a member of Netanyahu's Likud party, in an interview with Israel Radio. "You wouldn't expect that with the US pressing, with great strength, that the prime minister will answer all the American expectations.''

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

IN PICTURES: The Israeli separation barrier: A West Bank wall

The US and Israel are searching for an agreement on how to create the right conditions to ensure the success of peace negotiations with the Palestinians, on hiatus for more than a year. Israel's insistence on its right to build in Jerusalem, including the predominantly Arab eastern part of the city annexed by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, has caused the Palestinians to balk at US-mediated talks. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be their capital if they ever obtain an independent state

"In the last 24 hours they made some progress, but they're not out of the woods yet,'' says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy – a think tank that promotes a strong US-Israel alliance. (Editor's note: The original version of this article wrongly implied that Mr. Makovsky was a supporter of Netanyahu's Likud party and misidentified WINEP as a lobbying group.)

Makovsky adds that the talks are focusing on confidence-building gestures that are far-reaching enough to create a right "environment'' for peace talks to succeed without upsetting Netanyahu's right-wing coalition – a prospect Makovsky is not sure is achievable. "I don't know if you can square that circle,'' he said.

Pro-settlement groups praise Netanyahu's firm stance

The March 9 announcement of a plan to build 1,600 apartments in a Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden's recent visit embarrassed the US and prompted Palestinians to balk. Israel apologized, saying the project wouldn't be completed for years.

But Netanyahu asserted this week that building in Jerusalem was no different than building in Tel Aviv. "It's our capital,'' he said at the annual conference of the leading Israel lobbying group in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

Back home in Israel, Interior Minister Eli Yishaiwhose ministry announced the 1,600 new housing units – told a newspaper of his ultra-religious political party, Shas, that the government would not agree to a building freeze in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, other pro-settlement groups in Israel issued statements on Thursday congratulating Netanyahu for a "firm'' stance toward the Obama administration.

"Israel stands firmly at Prime Minister Netanyahu's side as he feels the full weight brought to bear by Barack Obama,'' said the main settler lobby, the Yesha Council, in a statement today.

US officials have to 'stand their ground'

Commentators in the mainstream media however, are portraying Netanyahu's visit as ill-prepared and a disaster.

"The prime minister rejoiced all the way to the meeting, without suspecting that he was walking into a fools’ trap,'' wrote Ben Caspit in the daily Maariv newspaper. Mr. Caspit wrote that Netanyahu – known here by his nickname, Bibi – was humiliated by the Americans. "Bibi received in the White House the treatment reserved for the president of Equatorial Guinea.''

Israeli MP Eitan Cabel, a member of the Labor Party, which is part of Netanyahu's coalition, told the Associated Press: "Netanyahu decided to spit into Obama's eye... he and his pyromaniac ministers insist on setting the Middle East ablaze."

Israel's government is sending a message to the US and the international community that it wants to change the principles of previous negotiations, which assumed that the pre-1967 borders would serve as the basis for a territorial compromise, says Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert based in Tel Aviv.

But there's a growing consensus that after yielding to Netanyahu last year on his demand to freeze settlement construction, President Obama – who, in a landmark speech from Cairo in June 2009 told the Muslim world that the US "does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" – can't afford to back down again.

"They [US officials] have to stand their ground, especially in front of other Middle Eastern countries,'' says Mr. Javedanfar.

After senior military officials under Gen. David Petraeus warned the Pentagon's top brass that US lives were at stake if Israel could not be persuaded to make concessions to the Palestinians, Mr. Biden conveyed that message to his hosts on his recent Israel visit.

"The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism," wrote the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

IN PICTURES: Israeli settlements

IN PICTURES: The Israeli separation barrier: A West Bank wall

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