By STEVEN GUTKIN
Israel’s hardline government is deeply worried that the U.S. will try to impose a Mideast peace deal, that the Palestinians might declare statehood unilaterally and that Washington could be moving to end tensions with Syria.
These fears underscore how the current differences between the U.S. and Israel go far beyond a still unresolved diplomatic row over Israeli settlement building. Instead, there is a deepening chasm between the visions of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama, raising questions about the strength of the U.S.-Israeli alliance despite mutual pronouncements that the bond is unshakable.
Netanyahu fears Israel could be forced into unwanted concessions and its enemies’ hands will be strengthened. His government is pushing to keep the focus firmly on threats from Hezbollah, Hamas and — particularly — Iran and its disputed nuclear program.
Obama, in contrast, is speaking about the promises of peace and has taken a new unusual step, publicly characterizing Israeli-Arab strife as harmful to U.S. interests — which many interpreted as a prelude to taking action to push through a peace.
A forum of Israel’s top seven ministers met three times this week to try to find ways to warm the chilly relationship with the Obama administration, but failed to agree on any specific measures, such as stopping Jewish construction in east Jerusalem, officials said on condition of anonymity because the meetings were closed.
Israeli officials have been phoning U.S. congress members for help in repairing the ties that were damaged last month when Israel announced a massive new Jewish housing project in east Jerusalem during a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. Palestinians hope to make that part of the city their future capital.
Israel still has not given its response to a series of demands Obama reportedly made in a tense meeting with Netanyahu in Washington on March 23. This has led to speculation that Netanyahu might be seeking to buy time in the hope that Obama would be less inclined to pressure Israel in the run-up to November’s U.S. congressional elections, in which Jewish American support is key.
U.S. frustration over the lack of progress on Mideast peace has led to a debate in the Obama administration over whether to propose an American peace plan that would clearly outline U.S. expectations. Israeli officials fear that would mean heavy pressure on them to make territorial compromises they have so far resisted.
“All those who support a forced solution are in fact making the solution much less probable,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon.
Israel has spent the past week trying to draw attention to the myriad threats it says it faces in the region.
As the U.S. prepared to reinstall an ambassador in the Syrian capital of Damascus, Israeli intelligence officials said this week they believe Syria was transferring deadly Scud missiles to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, a claim Syria denied. Hezbollah admits it has been massively arming since its 2006 war with Israel, yet the timing of the statements suggested they may have also reflected Israeli concerns about Obama’s Syria policy.
Also, during annual Holocaust commemorations, Netanyahu raised Europe’s failure to act early to stop the rise of Nazi Germany in order to push Israel’s demands for stronger action to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
The U.S. and its allies accuse Iran of seeking to build a nuclear weapon, and Israel says it would be under direct threat. In Washington, senior military and intelligence officials warned that in about a year, Iran could amass enough nuclear material to build a bomb. Iran denies it has any intention to do so.
The current U.S.-Israeli friction might be an unavoidable outcome of having a liberal administration in Washington and a right-wing government in Israel. But with Israel’s international image in tatters following its bruising offensive against Hamas militants in Gaza last year — and with the U.S. badly in need of Muslim support to accomplish its goals in Afghanistan and Iraq — patience for Israel’s 43-year-old occupation of the Palestinians is wearing thin.
Driven by similar frustrations, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has floated the idea of unilaterally declaring statehood as early as next year — a proposal that led Israel’s foreign minister to threaten to annul past peace agreements and even annex parts of the West Bank.
The U.S.-Israel tensions also reflect a fair amount of irony. Israel is showing deep distrust for Obama even though what he is proposing could ensure Israel’s survival as a Jewish and democratic country — considering that Arabs will soon outnumber Jews in the lands comprising historic Palestine.
Netanyahu is reluctant to make territorial compromises mostly because he thinks they will jeopardize Israel’s security, but his hardline stance is liable to hinder his attempts to marshal international support for his overarching goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
U.S. Mideast envoy George Mitchell is due back in the region in the coming days to try to revive a plan to have the sides begin U.S.-mediated, indirect talks. Pressuring Netanyahu ahead of talks has so far proven ineffective. Doing so instead once talks have started — and a real peace plan is on the table — could bring the Israeli leader to a moment of truth, having to choose between his hawkish partners and a more moderate coalition, between compromise and keeping all the land. AP