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Does Obama have a plan for peace — or a plan for a plan?

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Following weeks of meetings between U.S. special envoy George Mitchell, center, and leaders in the Middle East, President Obama reportedly is set to put forth new proposals for advancing Israeli-Arab talks. White House/Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – Are the parties in the Middle East ready for a U.S. peace plan? Or just for a plan for a peace plan?

Talk of a near-term U.S. peace plan was spurred last week when a State Department official said one would be in place “within weeks” — a projection confirmed within a day by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

“I think it will be in a matter of weeks,” the spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said in an Aug. 3 briefing when he was asked when George Mitchell, President Obama’s envoy to the Middle East, would present a plan.

Barak echoed the same message a day later during a briefing to the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, according to a Reuters report.

“In the coming weeks,” Barak said, “their plan will be formulated and presented to the parties.”

Officials in the pro-Israel community and among foreign diplomats now say those projections were premature, that Obama administration officials were preparing the ground for the modalities of peace talks rather than a plan with specifics.

“What we know with our contacts with the administration is that they were satisfied with results of conversations Mitchell had in Israel,” a European diplomat told JTA. “There appears to be some confidence in the White House that there is an overall optimism that a breakthrough can be made — but there is no specific plan.”

According to the current scenario, Obama may be ready by the start of the U.N. General Assembly in mid-September to speak about deadlines and about where the talks will take place and who will participate.

Specifics, however, have been frustrated by a who-blinks-first dynamic that has overtaken U.S. diplomacy for the time being.

Arab states want Israel to commit to a settlement freeze before they announce concessions that would include allowing Israeli overflights and limited trade. Israel wants to see the concessions, and a stated recognition of Israel’s Jewish nature from the Palestinians and other Arabs, before it commits to a freeze. And the Palestinians have said that Israel must freeze settlements before they return to the table.

Hopes for progress were not helped by the long-delayed congress convened last week by Fatah, the mainstream Palestinian party that controls affairs in the west bank. The congress bogged down in debates over the tactics of “resistance” as opposed to peacemaking.

The belligerence at the conference, with resolutions demanding all of Jerusalem and accusing Israel of murdering Yasser Arafat, belied a readiness for peace and handed an opening to U.S. pro-Israel groups that have scrambled in recent weeks for the means to defend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement policies.

The Fatah congress had the effect of marginalizing Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader and Palestinian Authority president, said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris.

“Two months ago, President Abbas firmly rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call in his Bar-Ilan University speech to resume direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and now Abbas ups the ante with preposterous demands on Jerusalem and other final-status issues,” Harris said. “Why can’t Palestinian leaders openly recognize the fact that four consecutive Israeli prime ministers have offered a two-state solution?”

Another distraction for the Obama administration was his awarding of a Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the former U.N. human rights commissioner who has been blamed in some circles for having failed to keep the U.N. conference on racism in Durban in 2001 from becoming an anti-Israel fest.

That news invited a flood of critiques from Jewish organizational officials who were glad for the break from having to explain the court-ordered eviction of Palestinian families from Jerusalem homes they had occupied for decades.

The centrist pro-Israel groups were not about to cede the upper ground. More than 70 U.S. senators this week signed a letter, strongly backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and opposed by some Jewish groups that favor increased U.S. pressure on Israel, urging Obama to focus on pressuring Arab nations to conciliate with Israel. A companion letter from the U.S. House of Representatives was sent to Saudi Arabia’s king.

The gaps between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and between some pro-Israel groups and the White House here do not mean Obama’s peacemakers will stand down. And Barak, the Israeli defense minister, warned his colleagues that they should be ready to play along when the White House steps up with a plan.

“Israel must take the lead in accepting the plan,” he was quoted as telling his Knesset colleagues.

That strategy would put Israel at an advantage, said an official with a pro-Israel group who consults with the Obama administration.

“That would be very positive for Israel-U.S. relations,” said the official, from one of the groups that favors increased U.S. pressure on Israel.

He noted the recent furor over a leaked memo from Nadav Tamir, an Israeli diplomat in Boston, who alleged that Netanyahu’s refusal to accept a settlement freeze was damaging Israel’s ties with its most critical ally.

The flurry of controversies means the White House is likelier to proceed at a slower, more careful pace, said David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There’s no value in coming out with full guns if you’re going to fail,” said Makovsky, who has intensely lobbied the Obama and Netanyahu administrations in recent weeks to consider a “borders first” solution in which Israel and the Palestinians would mutually agree on borders that would allow Israel to keep some settlements in exchange for land swaps that would amount to 100 percent of the land Israel seized in the west bank during the 1967 Six Day War.

Establishing borders would hand both sides a “win,” Makovsky said: Netanyahu’s government would be the first to annex west bank settlements, and Abbas’ government would show that it won back land through negotiations, quelling claims by Hamas in Gaza that only violence works. It also would help defuse a major sticking point between Jerusalem and Washington, as Israel would not be asked to freeze settlement construction in territory slated for annexation.

Thorny issues such as Jerusalem and the status of refugees would still be on the table, but according to this theory, the momentum created by resolving borders would spur such talks forward.

“It’s like in football,” Makovsky said. “If you can’t go 100 yards, you go 70 yards.”

JTA

 
 

Squabbles dogging U.S. ‘big picture’ in Middle East

imagePalestinian Islamic Jihad supporters in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip rally on Feb. 26 against an Israeli plan to renovate two Jewish holy sites in the west bank. Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash 90

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama’s big-picture guy, is set to draw it for the Israelis next week in a major address: Confront Iran internationally, talk peace regionally. (See also page 18.)

Bold strokes, but already Biden’s initiative is being dogged by scribbly little details — timing on Iran, building in Jerusalem, restoration in the west bank, and just how far apart will Israelis and the Palestinians sit.

Biden was set to meet Tuesday afternoon with pro-Israel leaders and the White House’s top Middle East staffers, evidently in a bid to see how he can smooth the picture’s corners before heading to Israel. The meeting, at the vice president’s home, is hush-hush — a sign of how vexing some of the problems have been.

Among them:

• Plans by Jerusalem’s mayor to level some Palestinian dwellings and move the families elsewhere;

• Israeli government earmarks for preserving Jewish holy sites in predominately Palestinian areas in the west bank;

• A Palestinian reluctance to return to direct talks, resulting in awkward “proximity” talks, where the parties communicate only through a U.S. interlocutor;

• Israeli anxieties about the Obama administration’s reluctance to go for the jugular ASAP in confronting Iran.

The decision causing the greatest waves this week has perhaps the smallest bore: Netanyahu announced plans to include the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem among 150 heritage sites entitled to about $100 million in renovation funds.

Both sites are in heavily Palestinian areas. U.S. officials reportedly have blasted their Israeli counterparts for the decision, and the Palestinian cabinet held its most recent meeting in Hebron to protest. Palestinian protests in Hebron last week spilled over into Friday afternoon rioting at the ultra-sensitive patch of Jerusalem land where two mosques abut the Western Wall.

Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group controlling the Gaza Strip, called for the launch of a new intifada, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas fretted that the Israeli decision could lead to religious war.

“These sites are in occupied Palestinian territory and are of historical and religious significance not only to Judaism but also to Islam, and to Christianity as well,” said Robert Serry, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process.

True enough, Israeli officials say — and they have facilitated renovations to the Muslim part of the Patriarchs’ cave in the recent past, undercutting arguments that this is part of an attempt to “Judaize” the sites.

“This is not in any way changing the status quo,” Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev told JTA. “This is about renovating important historical and religious sites of the Jewish people.”

Settler leaders said the Palestinian reaction underscored how important it is to remind the world of the Jewish stake in the sites.

“The reaction of the Palestinians shows how important it was,” Danny Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria, and the Gaza Strip told JTA. “They erroneously thought the Jewish people had abandoned” the sites.

Netanyahu is not insensitive to the appearances of such initiatives.

On Tuesday, his government talked Jerusalem’s hard-nosed mayor, Nir Barkat, into delaying a scheduled rollout of his plan to move out Palestinians living in Silwan, neighboring the Old City, and to raze their homes for a park. The mayor would offer the Palestinians the opportunity to build elsewhere.

But the prime minister leads a government that is predominantly right-wing, and that includes parties that draw support from west bank Jewish settlers and their sympathizers. In a bid to simultaneously please the United States, Israel’s best and closest ally, and his hardest-line constituents, he ends up veering both ways.

Still, the Obama administration “appreciated” Netanyahu’s intervention into Barkat’s plan, with State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley saying later Tuesday that the U.S. government “welcomed the intervention.”

In meetings last week, top Israeli officials dropped their demand for direct talks with the Palestinians and agreed to “proximity” talks, the cumbersome process where every back-and-forth runs through U.S. diplomats.

That was a “get” for the Obama administration, but it was followed this week by Israel’s announcement of building starts in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood Pisgat Ze’ev. And that earned a rebuke.

“We have relayed our strong concerns to the Government of Israel that this kind of activity, particularly as we try to relaunch meaningful negotiations, is counterproductive and undermines trust between the parties,” Crowley said in a statement Monday.

The Obama administration advocates a holistic approach to tamping down Middle East tensions. Its officials want to see Israeli-Arab talks moving while rallying international efforts to isolate Iran as long as it fails to make transparent its nuclear plans.

Again, the Israelis are happy with any effort to push Iran back from the nuclear brink — but the devil is in the details. The Obama administration is still operating on assumptions that the Iranians are several years away from weaponization, while the Israelis are convinced that it will happen before 2010 is out.

That has led Israel to press the Obama administration to adopt unilateral and punishing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector immediately. Such sanctions are written into bills that have passed both chambers of the U.S. Congress and are backed by almost every pro-Israel group.

The Obama administration will not count out the so-called crippling sanctions, but prefers for now to focus on getting the U.N. Security Council to adopt more narrow sanctions targeting the Iranian leadership.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made his country’s case last week in Washington in meetings with top U.S. officials. He emerged confident that the relationship was as sound as ever, but nonetheless noted differences on Iran in an address Feb. 26 to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“There is, of course, a certain difference in perspective and difference in judgment, difference in the internal clocks, and difference in capabilities,” he said. “And I don’t think that there is a need to coordinate in this regard. That should be understood; it should be exchange of views — we do not need to coordinate every step. We clearly support the attempt to solve it through diplomacy.”

Barak, however, could not resist a subtle jab at Americans who do not have the same stake in protecting the region from Iranian hegemony.

“We clearly think that in spite of the fact that from America, when you look at a nuclear Iran, you already have, just besides allies like France and UK, you have a nuclear Russia, nuclear China, nuclear India, nuclear Pakistan, North Korea is going toward turning nuclear,” Barak said. “So probably from this corner of the world, it doesn’t change the scene dramatically.

“From a closer distance, in Israel it looks like a tipping point of the whole regional order with a quite assured, quite certain consequences to the wider world, global world order.”

JTA

 
 

Can Iran’s democracy clock outpace its nuclear clock?

WASHINGTON – Iran watchers keep two clocks: One counts down to a nuclear Iran, the other counts down to a democratic Iran.

Neither clock is guaranteed to keep ticking all the way down.

News Analysis

The international community hopes to thwart Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. And despite the upheaval in Iran last summer, no one is sure that the autocratic regime in Tehran is on its way out — or whether it will be replaced by a true democracy.

Still, recent developments on the ground — the rise last June and subsequent repression of Iran’s democracy movement, and Tehran’s apparent nuclear gains — have altered assessments about the two countdowns and whether they are influencing each other.

Some hard-liners such as John Bolton, the Bush administration’s pugnacious U.N. ambassador, say getting tougher on Iran would empower its democracy movement. Others, like Shoshana Bryen, the senior director for security policy at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, counter that the democracy movement has essentially been snuffed out — providing another reason for the West to get tougher.

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Iran watchers in Washington and Israel wonder what will come first: an Iranian nuclear bomb or the turning out of the regime led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, shown addressing the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 23, 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro

Bryen says the nuclear clock is ticking faster — earlier this month, Iran announced plans to build 10 new nuclear fuel plants — and the regime in Tehran has figured out how to gum up the democracy clock.

“I think we are now not able to wait for the overthrow,” Bryen said, arguing that mass imprisonments and executions have intimidated Iran’s opposition.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak delivered the same message last week in meetings with top U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran.

“We see that the grip of the regime on its own people and even the cohesion of the leading group of ayatollahs are both being cracked and probably the countdown, historic countdown, toward the collapse has already started, but I don’t know of any serious observer who can tell us whether it will take two years, four years, six years, or 10,” Barak said in an address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And it’s clear to me that the clock toward the collapse of this regime works much slower than the clock which ticks toward Iran becoming a nuclear military power.”

A similar split is taking hold among those who oppose harsh sanctions. Many in this camp, spearheaded by the National Iranian American Council, say that the successes of the Iranian opposition movement bolster the argument for holding back on tough measures.

Others, however, heeding “realists” such as former George W. Bush administration officials Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, say sanctions are futile precisely because the Iranian government is here to stay, so it’s better to talk to the current regime.

The Obama administration appears to be shifting toward a dual track of investment in the democracy movement and tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is accelerating talks with major powers toward a new sanctions package and said last month that Iran’s government is assuming the trappings of a junta.

A report last month by the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, for the first time cited as “credible” reports from Western intelligence agencies that say Iran is actively working toward a bomb. The report is helping the United States make the case for sanctions to holdouts in the U.N. Security Council.

P.J. Crowley, the spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said Feb. 22 that the Obama administration is still focused on outreach — specifically an offer to get Iran to give up its low-enriched uranium in exchange for uranium enriched to medical research levels. He said an international, multilateral sanctions regime was close — underscoring the Obama administration’s focus on pressing for U.N. sanctions targeting the regime’s leadership and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps that protect it.

Crowley also would not count out unilateral congressional sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector — the approach being pushed by many pro-Israel groups.

Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now — the only major pro-Israel group opposing the congressional sanctions described as “crippling” by their sponsors — says Iran needs active diplomatic engagement precisely because of the nuclear threat and the futility of sanctions, which he warned could backfire.

Nir says the prospect that the regime in Tehran would give way to democracy is too ephemeral right now to count on as policy.

A group of foreign policy realists for months has been advising the administration that investment in the Iranian opposition movement is futile.

In an opinion piece in The New York Times, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett derided Obama’s outreach to Iran as half-hearted and said engagement with the real power — the Iranian regime — made better sense than staking anything on the democracy movement.

Not everyone is ready to count out the democracy movement.

David Cvach, until recently the second counselor at the French Embassy in Iran and now the Middle East specialist at the French Embassy in Washington, says he believes the fissures in Iran reach deep into the power structure.

“The system has lost its amazing capacity to bring everyone together,” he said of the regime in a Feb. 5 talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Cvach says the successes of the opposition coupled with the Obama administration’s attempts at outreach to Iran lay the groundwork for sanctions that would target the regime’s elites.

“We should now focus on pressure on the regime,” Cvach said. “We don’t need to know whether it has nuclear weapons or how deep the fissures are — what we know is enough to raise the pressure.”

Trita Parsi, who heads the National Iranian American Council, says that sanctions could be counterproductive unless they are narrowly targeted.

“Sanctions that truly target the Revolutionary Guards but spare the population will likely not damage the Green movement,” Parsi said. “But blind, indiscriminate sanctions that hurt the population have in the past and will likely in the future make the struggle for democracy more difficult.”

Meir Javendanfar, a respected Iranian-born Israeli analyst who believes the post-June unrest has wounded the Iranian regime, favors the sanctions targeting the Guard’s banking and business interests — for now.

Broader sanctions, he says, are risky, but the prospect of a nuclear theocracy is riskier.

“Not imposing sanctions will be the worst option,” he said. “It will send a signal to Khameini,” the supreme ruler of Iran, “that the West is weak.”

JTA

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U.S.-Israel search for Middle East peace: Beyond Ramat Shlomo

 

White House charm offensive pays off:  Wiesel says tension ‘gone’

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

WASHINGTON – When Elie Wiesel says it’s all kosher, it’s good.

For now, anyway.

President Obama capped an intensive two weeks of administration make-nice with Israeli officials and the American Jewish community by hosting Wiesel, the Nobel peace laureate and Holocaust memoirist, for lunch at the White House.

News Analysis

“It was a good kosher lunch,” was the first thing Wiesel pronounced, emerging from the White House to a gaggle of reporters.

And not just the food.

“There were moments of tension,” Wiesel said. “But the tension I think is gone, which is good.”

That echoed Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, who a few days earlier told leaders of the American Jewish Committee that the “slight disagreements are behind us.”

The tension and the “slight” disagreements, of course, were between the United States and Israel — and by extension, the mainstream pro-Israel community — and started March 8, when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden rebuked Israel, but it didn’t stop there. Next came an extended phoned-in dressing down from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and claims by Clinton and other U.S. officials that Israel had “insulted” Biden.

Then, when Netanyahu arrived in Washington to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, Obama all but snubbed the Israeli leader, agreeing to meet him only without photo ops.

The pro-Israel community was virtually unified in its reaction: Yes, Netanyahu had screwed up, but this was piling on.

As the recriminations grew more pronounced, so did concerns about the relationship: Did this portend a major shake-up? Was Obama distancing himself from Israel?

In private, Jewish organizational leaders reached out to White House friends and said, whatever you’re selling, you need to explain it before “tensions” become a full-fledged “crisis.”

There were signs of that, with messages — some blunt, some oblique — about the dangers of pressing Israel on Jerusalem. The author of one of the messages, in the form of a full-page New York Times ad, was Wiesel.

In response to such rumblings — around the time of Israel Independence Day, mid-to-late April — the Obama administration launched its love assault. If you were a Jewish organization, no matter how particularized, you would get administration face time from Clinton (the American Jewish Committee) through Attorney General Eric Holder (the Anti-Defamation League) down to Chuck Hagel, the co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board (American Friends of Hebrew University.)

Clearly there was a checklist for the speakers:

• Mention that there is “no gap — no gap” (and say it like that) between the United States and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security. (Jim Jones, the national security advisor, to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; his deputy, Daniel Shapiro, to the ADL.)

• Repeat, ad infinitum, the administration’s “commitment to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.” (Clinton to the AJC; Dennis Ross, the top White House official handling Iran policy, to the ADL and just about everyone else.

• Make it clear that while resolving the conflict would make it easier to address an array of other issues, the notion that Israel is responsible for the deaths of U.S. soldiers in the region is a calumny. (Robert Gates, the defense secretary, at a news conference with Barak: “No one in this department, in or out of uniform, believes that.” Shapiro to the ADL: “We do not believe this conflict endangers the lives of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.”)

• Resolve to resolve differences “as allies” and don’t forget to criticize the Palestinians as well, for incitement and for recalcitrance in refusing to come to direct talks (proximity talks are resuming this week).

• And explain the fundaments of what is good about the relationship: defense cooperation.

The most pronounced evidence of this approach was in the ADL’s double whammy: The civil rights group got two speeches from two officials, Ross and Shapiro, who had not spoken publicly since taking their jobs in the administration. Each was in a position to go into detail about the details of the defense relationship, Ross handling the Iran perspective and Shapiro handling Israel and its neighbors.

“We have reinvigorated defense cooperation, including on missile defense, highlighted by the 1,000 U.S. service members who traveled to Israel to participate in the Juniper Cobra military exercises last fall,” Shapiro said. “We have intensive dialogues and exchanges with Israel — in political, military, and intelligence channels — on regional security issues and counterterrorism, from which we both benefit, and which enable us to coordinate our strategies whenever possible.

“We have redoubled our efforts to ensure Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, which has been publicly recognized and appreciated by numerous senior Israeli security officials. And we continue to support the development of Israeli missile defense systems, such as Arrow and David’s Sling, to upgrade Patriot missile defense systems first deployed during the Gulf War, and to work cooperatively with Israel on an advanced radar system to provide early warning of incoming missiles.”

Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, was impressed, saying this was more than just rhetoric.

“We’ve heard all kinds of phraseology in the last few weeks, but this is an inventory,” he said.

Tom Neumann, who heads the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, agreed that the defense relationship remains strong — but wondered whether the rhetoric did not portend more substantive changes.

“On a soldier-to-soldier basis it remains solid,” Neumann said. “But much of the defense relationship is ultimately dictated by the administration. Obama may yet put pressure on Israel through the transfer of arms through how to confront Iran.”

JTA

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President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 

Do indirect peace talks have a shot?

JERUSALEM – Although Israeli and Palestinian leaders are pessimistic about the chances of a breakthrough in the U.S.-mediated proximity talks that begin this week, the Americans hope the process itself will generate a new peacemaking dynamic.

Whether or not the parties make headway, Israeli analysts anticipate a major U.S. peace push this fall.

Over the past few months, U.S. officials have made it clear that the Obama administration sees Israeli-Palestinian peace as a major U.S. interest. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made the point in a Washington speech last month. Not only does the lack of peace threaten Israel’s future and hold back the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, it “destabilizes the region and beyond,” she said.

That position has translated into tough messages to both sides from the Obama administration’s special envoy for Middle East peace, George Mitchell, who got the two sides to agree to launch the indirect talks and is now set to mediate between them.

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks with the Obama administration’s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv before their April 25 flight to New York. Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

Mitchell has made clear that he has no intention of merely shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah carrying messages, but that he intends to put forward American bridging proposals wherever they might be helpful. He also has indicated to both sides that if the talks falter, the Obama administration will not be slow to blame the party it holds responsible. Indeed, Palestinian officials say Mitchell told them that the United States would take significant diplomatic steps against any side it believed was holding back progress.

The Americans see the proximity talks as a four-month preparatory corridor leading to direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The strategy seems to be to get the process moving quickly and with as much intensity as possible until next September, when the Israeli moratorium on building in west bank settlements is due to expire.

Then, Israeli analysts say, President Obama will reconsider his options: If the talks are progressing well, Washington will try to persuade the Israelis to extend the building freeze and the Palestinians to agree to direct negotiations. But if the talks are foundering, Obama may consider putting an American peace plan on the table and calling an international peace conference to pressure the parties to move forward, according to a recent report by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, which quoted senior administration officials.

Israeli media also have reported that Obama told several key European leaders that if the talks stall, he will convene an international peace conference in the fall.

The Israeli aim is first and foremost not to lose the blame game.

The Netanyahu administration in Jerusalem sees in the proximity talks as a means of managing the conflict and keeping the international community at bay as long as it is seen to be giving peacemaking a chance. Israeli officials have little faith in the Palestinians’ negotiating intentions and suspect them of planning to use the talks to generate further U.S. pressure on Israel.

Thus, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has gone out of his way to convince the Americans of his good faith. Contrary to his previous position — that core issues like borders, Jerusalem, refugees, security and water could be discussed only in direct talks —Netanyahu has agreed to have everything on the table in the proximity phase.

More important, he pressed for a vote in his Likud Party last week deferring internal party elections for two years, defeating inveterate party hawks, and giving himself new wiggle room to maneuver in the peacemaking arena.

In the proximity talks, Netanyahu wants to discuss security and water issues first. He has ordered his staff to work on an eight-point brief on security prepared by the previous Israeli government under Ehud Olmert. Before Israel makes any commitments on permanent borders, Netanyahu wants to clarify the precise details of Palestinian demilitarization, Israeli rights in Palestinian air space, the functioning of border crossing points, and the deployment of Israeli forces along the Palestinians’ eastern border with Jordan to prevent arms smuggling.

At one point Netanyahu considered offering the Palestinians an interim mini-state with temporary borders, according to Israeli media, who reported that President Shimon Peres and Defense Minster Ehud Barak, both apparently with Netanayu’s approval, tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to accept an interim state on about 60 percent of the west bank.

This would have removed any lingering doubts about Israel’s commitment to the two-state solution without entailing a major Israeli withdrawal from the west bank.

But Abbas, fearful that the temporary measure could become permanent, quickly shot down the idea. A spokesman for Netanyahu told JTA that the interim plan “was out there” and that Abbas had rejected it.

Instead, Netanyahu may be ready to hand over more west bank land to Palestinian political and security control in a goodwill gesture designed to show Israel’s ultimate readiness to roll back its occupation of the west bank.

Like Israel, the Palestinians’ primary goal is not to lose the blame game.

Abbas is convinced that a deal with Netanyahu’s hawkish government is not possible. Leading Palestinians for months have been saying that talks with the Netanyahu government would be futile.

In a speech to his Fatah Party in late April, Abbas called on Obama to “impose” a solution that would lead to an independent Palestinian state.

“Mr. President,” he said, “since you believe in this, it is your duty to take steps toward a solution and to impose a solution.”

Israeli intelligence has been warning that Abbas’ aim is to get the international community, led by the United States, to impose a settlement on Israel. The Palestinian leader also wants Washington in his corner should he decide to go to the United Nations for a binding resolution recognizing a Palestinian state and delineating its borders.

Given the current lack of trust between Israel and the Palestinians, American thinking along similar lines is starting to take shape.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. national security adviser, is proposing that Obama put a new set of peace parameters on the table and urge the parties to negotiate a final peace deal within the U.S.-initiated framework. Should either side refuse, Brzezinski says the United States should get U.N. endorsement of the plan, putting unbearable international pressure on the recalcitrant party.

Brzezinski reportedly outlined this position to Obama in a meeting of former national security advisers convened in late March by Gen. James Jones, the current incumbent.

This is precisely the type of scenario Israeli analysts are predicting for September, especially if the proximity talks fail to make progress: binding American peace parameters serving as new terms of reference for an international peace conference and subsequent Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

According to senior Israeli officials, the conference would be held under the auspices of the international Quartet — the grouping of the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia — with the aim of forging a wide international consensus for the creation of a Palestinian state.

JTA

 
 

Is Netanyahu alienating Israel’s friends in Europe?

JERUSALEM – On the day last week that Israel gained admission to the prestigious Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel’s continued control over the Palestinians was eroding its global standing.

Whereas Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Israel’s joining of the OECD as an economic and diplomatic coup, Barak warned of a growing tide of international isolation unless Israel comes out with a major peace initiative of its own, irrespective of the OECD membership.

News Analysis

The differences between Netanyahu and Barak lie at the heart of the debate over how central the Israeli-Palestinian process is to Israel’s diplomatic efforts worldwide.

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Angel Gurria, right, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, congratulates Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on May 10 after Israel’s admission into the OECD. Moshe Milner/GPO

Some believe Israel can safely ride out the storm of international pressure for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But many others argue that a credible peacemaking orientation is an essential component of Israel’s standing in the world, and that Netanyahu is alienating Israel’s few friends.

Barak, the Labor Party leader, makes no secret of his concern at the way differences over peacemaking have embroiled the Netanyahu government not only with the Obama administration, but also with some of its closest allies in Europe.

Israel long has had a rough ride in European public opinion, but since Netanyahu came to power in March 2009, there have been growing signs of tensions with friendly European leaders and governments, particularly Britain, Germany, and France.

Part of Netanyahu’s image problem has been his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who is widely perceived in Europe as a crude anti-Arab bulldozer against peace. But mainly it is skepticism over Netanyahu’s own seriousness about peacemaking that is hurting Israel. European leaders are not convinced of the genuineness of his commitment to the two-state solution, and they also see his declarations about continued construction of Jewish housing in eastern Jerusalem as unnecessarily provocative.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s oscillation between peace commitments to satisfy President Obama and construction promises to appease his right wing have led to a loss of credibility on the international stage.

Britain, for example, has been one of Israel’s staunchest allies in Europe. On a visit to Israel in July 2008, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown underlined the intimacy of the relationship by addressing the Knesset and launching a new Britain-Israel partnership for research and academic exchange. Brown also was one of six European heads of government who made a solidarity visit to Israel at the height of the war with Hamas in Gaza in January 2009.

But after Netanyahu came to power two months later, the Brown government’s policies quickly took an anti-Israel turn. In July, Britain decided not to renew five military export licenses, all for spare parts for naval guns, to protest Israel’s alleged use of disproportionate force in Gaza.

“We do not grant licenses where there is a clear risk that arms will be used for external aggression or internal repression,” a British Embassy spokesman in Tel Aviv declared.

In December, the British Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs ruled that produce from west bank settlements could no longer be labeled “produced in Israel,” but must be tagged “product of the west bank.” An optional additional label could clarify whether the origin was an Israeli settlement or Palestinian — a move Israel saw as encouraging a boycott of settler produce.

Also in December, much to Israel’s consternation, Britain backed an abortive Swedish move to have the European Union recognize East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestine.

Relations were strained further by the British government’s failure to take promised action against legislation enabling anti-Israeli groups to bring war crimes charges against Israeli leaders and generals.

Alarmed by a move to press war crimes charges against Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, British leaders in December again vowed to repeal the offending legislation — but so far to no avail.

Tension between the two countries came to a head in February when it became apparent that suspected Israeli Mossad agents allegedly used forged British passports, among others, for the assassination in Dubai of a leading Hamas operative. The British responded by expelling an unnamed Israeli diplomat from London.

Things may be worse with Germany, where Netanyahu got into a spat with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who probably has been Israel’s best and most influential friend on the continent. It happened in a telephone conversation in mid-March.

According to the German version, Merkel called Netanyahu at Obama’s request to urge no further building in eastern Jerusalem. She asked that the call be kept secret and promised to refrain from public criticism of Israel’s construction policies.

Netanyahu, however, immediately arranged for a briefing of Israeli journalists and told them he had called Merkel to inform her of Israel’s building plans in eastern Jerusalem.

Merkel felt Netanyahu had betrayed her trust, according to senior German sources. The Germans then released their version of the conversation and, during a news conference the next day, Merkel publicly criticized Israeli building in eastern Jerusalem.

Netanyahu apparently also is on the outs with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, once a close friend. In mid-April, Sarkozy told Israeli President Shimon Peres that he was disappointed in Netanyahu and found it hard to understand the prime minister’s political thinking.

“I don’t understand where Netanyahu is going or what he wants,” the French president was quoted as saying.

Sarkozy also has been outspoken about Lieberman’s presence in the government. In a meeting with Netanyahu in Paris last June, he urged Netanyahu to replace Lieberman as foreign minister with Livni and “make history.”

“You must get rid of that man,” Sarkozy was quoted as saying.

The fact that Israel has strained relations with its three most important backers in Europe has yet to translate into dramatic change in EU policy. Israel’s requested upgrading of ties with the European Union remains on hold, but that was the case before Netanyahu came to power. And Israel’s acceptance to the OECD was unanimous by the group’s members.

However, if there is a showdown between Israel and the Palestinians over the peace process, Europe could well be more supportive of the Palestinians. As with the Obama administration, the major European powers make the distinction between fundamental support for Israel’s security and right to exist, and criticism of the policies of the current government.

That same distinction is also being made by Jews on the left in Europe, following the lead of J Street in America. In early May European Jews, backed by notable intellectuals such as Bernard Henri Levi and Alain Finkielkraut, formed JCall, a new Jewish organization “committed to the state of Israel and critical of the current choices of its government.”

The friction with Obama and Europe and the loss of automatic Jewish support in both Europe and America are causing concern among many in Jerusalem.

“For first time we have a government that is succeeding … in causing the rest of the world to hate us,” Shlomo Avineri, one of Israel’s most respected political scientists, wrote recently in the Israeli daily Haaretz.

The conclusion of politicians on the center left, from Livni to Barak, is the same: Israel under Netanyahu needs credible peace policies to turn around in its diplomatic fortunes.

Some of Netanyahu’s defenders say the perception that he isn’t serious about peacemaking is not fair. The question is, does Netanyahu believe his policies are alienating Israel’s friends, and what will he do about it?

JTA

 
 

Obama, Jewish lawmakers discuss Israel, Iran

Amid perceptions that U.S.-Israel relations are at an all-time low, President Obama met with Jewish members of Congress last week and reportedly assured them that the relationship between the two countries is as strong as ever.

“It was a meeting of friends designed to talk about a very serious and important subject to all, namely, the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel,” said Rep. Steve Rothman (D-9), one of the 37 members of the House and Senate who attended the hour and a half White House meeting on May 18.

A White House statement called the meeting “a wide-ranging and productive exchange about their shared commitment to peace and security in Israel and the Middle East.”

Obama, Rothman said, has been more supportive of military cooperation with Israel than any other American president. He pointed to $3 billion in military aid in Obama’s budget and an additional $205 million the president earmarked for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The congressional delegation thanked the president for that support, according to Rothman, and for Obama’s role in Israel’s entry earlier this month into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which Rothman said would not have happened without the president’s intervention.

Rothman pointed to the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, jointly developed by Israel and the United States to intercept long-range rockets from Iran, as well as David’s Sling, jointly developed to intercept short-range missiles and Kassam rockets from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza. He also noted last October’s Operation Juniper Cobra, which showcased American and Israeli defensive technology.

“The president thanked us for recognizing his military and intelligence efforts,” said Rothman. He noted also that he pressed the president on Iran, emphasizing that stopping the Islamic regime from obtaining nuclear weapons was separate from the issue of forging Israeli-Palestinian peace. The president agreed, Rothman said. According to the congressman, Obama reiterated that a nuclear-weapons-capable Iran was unacceptable and all options — including a military strike — remained on the table.

The level of Obama’s support for Israel has been questioned lately as the two countries squabbled over East Jerusalem construction and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s perceived snub during a recent White House visit. Some Israeli pundits have suggested that the Obama administration has purposely given Netanyahu the cold shoulder, while rolling out the red carpet for Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Rothman dismissed such accusations.

The president, Rothman said, acknowledged and “was pained by” what the congressman called mistakes by his administration and Netanyahu’s during the recent row. Many at last week’s meeting thought the United States overreacted following the announcement of new construction during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel earlier this year, Rothman said.

“The president thought both parties should have done a better job in managing that situation, that the Netanyahu government felt the same way, and that both sides had learned lessons from that incident, and now put that dispute behind them,” Rothman said.

Turning their attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president told the delegation that no one could or should impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, dismissing rumors in Israeli media that he was preparing his own plan. Obama said a solution could only come from the Israelis and Palestinians, Rothman said.

“It was clear to me that the president wants to get beyond the issue of settlements and have the parties begin direct negotiations to resolve their differences and come to an agreement,” Rothman said.

Rothman said he warned the president that the Palestinians have historically rejected opportunities for statehood and may do so again. Obama told him that he would do all he could to encourage both sides not to miss the opportunity for peace and to move quickly to direct negotiations, Rothman said.

“The president also went into some details as to how he had privately and publicly communicated to the Palestinians that their acceptance and participation in acts of incitement of hatred toward Israel and Jews — in the Palestinian Authority media for example and in actions by Fatah — were completely unacceptable and in violation of the Road Map,” Rothman said.

Many of the congressmen encouraged Obama to publicly condemn Palestinian demonization of Israel and the Jewish people more frequently, Rothman said.

Finally, the congressional contingent encouraged Obama to make a trip to Israel and directly express to the Israeli people what Rothman called Obama’s “unwavering, heartfelt, and unshakable commitment to the survival and prosperity of the Jewish State of Israel.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, was the only non-Democrat at the meeting. Other attendees included New Jersey’s Sen. Frank Lautenberg, New York’s Rep. Anthony Weiner, Wisconsin’s Rep. Russ Feingold, New York’s Rep. Eliot Engel, Massachusetts’ Rep. Barney Frank, and New York’s Sen. Charles Schumer.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who lost last week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, did not attend.

Lautenberg released a statement ahead of his meeting with the president, shortly after meeting with a contingent of local Jewish leaders last Monday about U.S.-Israel relations.

“Israel is a critical ally of the United States, and we must not forget our shared values and shared security interests,” the statement said. “I look forward to emphasizing this important strategic relationship in my meeting with President Obama and to continuing an open dialogue with members of the Jewish community.”

The president was “receptive” and “genuinely interested” in the advice of the congressional delegation, New York Rep. Jerry Nadler said in a statement issued after the meeting.

“We stressed that the U.S. must not in any way seek to impose a settlement on Israel, and the president agreed, stating that he would not do so, and that any agreement had to be negotiated between the parties,” he said. “We also urged him to make clear to the Palestinians that the U.S. will not do their work for them.”

Engel released a statement before the meeting about moving past the recent disagreements between the United States and Israel.

“Through quiet dialogue, we will overcome differences and learn from each other, and, in turn, our nations will become stronger and our relationship deeper,” he said.

 
 

Flotilla raid stokes debate on price of Gaza blockade

Dina KraftWorld
Published: 04 June 2010

ASHDOD, Israel – The blurry black-and-white video footage was not what any Israeli wanted to see: elite navy commandos armed with paint balls (the pistols were only to be used as a last resort) dangling by a rope onto a boat filled with activists wielding metal bars and knives.

In one scene, an Israeli commando is thrown to the deck below by the mob aboard the ship.

“It’s not just appalling footage, it’s a national humiliation and a blow to Israel’s deterrence,” military analyst Amos Harel wrote in the Israeli daily Haaretz a day after the deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists aboard the Gaza-bound ship that left nine activists dead. “The question is why the soldiers were put in this situation in the first place.”

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An Israeli student brandishes her identity card in a June 1 demonstration outside Jerusalem’s Hebrew University in support of the Israeli navy raid on ships bound for Gaza. Kobi Gideon/Flash 90/JTA

As Israeli officialdom begins the process of reckoning — the navy is expected to conduct an inquiry and there have been calls for Defense Minister Ehud Barak to resign — analysts tried to untangle the strategy behind the botched raid on the Free Gaza movement flotilla. Many in the Israeli media are describing the raid as an intelligence, operational, and political failure.

The massive diplomatic fallout triggered by the flotilla confrontation also has ratcheted up the debate in Israel over the efficacy of Israel’s policy of blockading Gaza.

“Three years of a failed strategy brought us to the events of today,” said Yossi Alpher, co-editor of BitterLemons.org, an Israeli-Palestinian Website. “We could have dealt with this differently had we thought better strategically in advance about the consequences of our failed strategy in Gaza.”

Military sources said that although the commandos knew a confrontation was possible on the ship they boarded, the Mavi Marmara, they were surprised by the attempts to kill Israeli troops.

Despite the violent result of the raid, government officials said Israel had little choice but to find some way to confront and halt the six-ship flotilla because of the risk that there could be weapons in the uninspected cargo that could reach Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip.

“This is the ninth effort to get boats into Gaza,” said Andy David, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. “The first three were allowed through, but then we began to see it was becoming like a leaking faucet we had to put an end to because, as we have seen, Hamas is doing all it can do in its power to smuggle in weapons.”

David added, “If they had wanted to really deliver humanitarian aid, they could have done it through the Ashdod port.”

Passengers aboard the ships, however, said they did not trust that Israel — which has enforced a three-year blockade of Gaza, since Hamas militants wrested control of the territory from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in a bloody coup — to deliver the aid.

The government also was wary about who was on board the ships, Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told reporters during a briefing overlooking the Ashdod port as the ships in the flotilla were brought in for inspection Monday.

“You don’t know who is on board such ships and whether they might be a security threat or not,” she said.

Above all, the government appeared eager to make an example of this six-ship flotilla — the largest effort to date to break the blockade of Gaza — to show the world that it would not tolerate efforts to break the blockage, international condemnation notwithstanding.

The government made it very clear that it was not going to allow the passage of these ships and, in turn, wrote veteran commentator Nahum Barnea in Yediot Achronot, “committed itself, for all intents and purposes, to a confrontation.”

Some Israelis are saying the strategy was a mistake, that it would have been better to ignore the ships rather than give more fodder to pro-Palestinian activists trying to mobilize anti-Israel and anti-blockade sentiment.

“If the siege had any international legitimacy, today it lost a great deal of it,” said Meir Javedanfar, an independent political analyst. “Yes, Israeli citizens have a right to live in peace, but they have to find other ways of doing it. The siege hurts Israel more than Hamas because of the political costs it pays in terms of isolation, the damage of its relations with its allies and Europe, and how it helps demonize Israel.”

The blockade on Gaza has been a public relations burden for Israel ever since it began three years ago in an effort to isolate and weaken Gaza’s Hamas rulers, help bring home captured soldier Gilad Shalit, end Hamas rocket fire on Israel, and halt the flow of weapons into Gaza.

Though when it began the blockade had the backing of the United States, Egypt, and even the Palestinian Authority, it has been criticized as collective punishment for Gaza’s population. Even in Israel, some have called it a policy failure, complaining that the overly strict siege has blocked even legitimate humanitarian and civilian materials from reaching Gaza’s residents.

After Monday’s incident, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Robert Serry, and the commissioner general of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, Filippo Grandi, issued a joint statement scolding Israel.

“We wish to make clear that such tragedies are entirely avoidable if Israel heeds the repeated calls of the international community to end its counterproductive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza,” the statement said.

But proponents of the strategy for dealing with the flotilla and of the blockade itself said that allowing the ships to pass would have opened a new access route for Iran to send rockets to the strip.

“If there was no siege at all, they can bring whatever boats they want,” Israeli lawmaker Aryeh Eldad of the National Union Party told JTA in a telephone interview. “They will bring tanks, cannons, long-range missiles — exactly what we see in hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon, where we have no control whatsoever. If we stop the siege we will see the mirror image of Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip.”

JTA

 
 

Settlement freeze, Iran, peace talks to headline vital Obama-Bibi meeting

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rear left, and President Obama, flanked by Israeli and U.S. officials, are pictured at a Sept. 22, 2009 meeting in New York. The pair are scheduled to meet on July 6. Avi Ohayon /GPO/Flash 90/JTA

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told reporters this week that he was misheard when he was quoted as telling Israeli diplomats that a “tectonic rift” was emerging between Israel and the United States. The Israelis didn’t get it, said the U.S.-born Oren: He meant there was a “tectonic shift.”

Whether there is a difference, and whether it’s meaningful, no one was going to say. The point was to get it right this time when the U.S. president and Israeli prime minister meet at the White House on July 6 or face a worsening of U.S.-Israel ties.

“The Americans and Israelis with whom we’ve met all seem quite optimistic that both sides are intent on having a positive meeting,” said the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, who is in Israel this week. “Both sides understand that there’s a lot at stake in having a positive outcome.”

As opposed to the last two — or almost two — times.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last visit to Washington, in late March, was marred by the aftermath of the tensions that followed Israel’s announcement about two weeks earlier of new building in eastern Jerusalem just as Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel for a visit. Top U.S. officials called the announcement an insult, and when Netanyahu and President Obama met they kept their deliberations behind closed doors, failing even to issue a summary statement.

Both sides spent subsequent weeks making up, with Obama administration officials emphasizing practical U.S. defense support for Israel and Netanyahu pressing hard for direct talks with the Palestinians. By the end of May, things looked good for a June 1 meeting at the White House.

But then came Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla. Netanyahu, already in North America, canceled his White House meeting and rushed back to Israel.

The Obama administration ostensibly supported Israel during the widespread outrage that followed, but the administration also pressed Netanyahu to set up an investigatory commission and flip its Gaza sanctions policy: Instead of a “white list” of permissible products to be allowed into Gaza, Israel created a blacklist of products it would bar from import to Gaza. That allowed a much broader array of goods into Gaza and marked a diplomatic loss for the Israeli government.

The sides are likely to come to the July 6 meeting with two items unresolved: What Israel plans to do once its 10-month partial freeze on west bank settlement building lapses in September, and how the sides plan to confront Iran.

The first issue is likely to be the most contentious: The Obama administration wants to keep the Palestinian Authority in the process, having finally lured it into proximity talks. But if Netanyahu doesn’t have direct talks to show for his efforts, it will be a hard sell to keep his right-leaning cabinet on board.

As an extra burr, Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat — who has national ambitions — is pressing ahead with plans to build in Arab neighborhoods of eastern Jerusalem.

On Iran, the difference may be more fundamental. Ostensibly the news for Netanyahu is good: The U.N. Security Council passed expanded sanctions this month against Iran in light of its recalcitrance on making its nuclear program transparent. The sanctions themselves lacked serious bite, but they set the stage for much tougher sanctions — one set approved by the European Union and another passed by the U.S. Congress.

The congressional sanctions are the toughest ever, targeting third parties that deal with Iran’s energy and financial sectors. They have been welcomed by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, signaling the likelihood that Obama will adopt at least some of them. Already the Treasury Department has expanded sanctions targeting Iran’s shipping and banking sectors based on existing law.

The problem is, Israel’s establishment no longer believes sanctions will be effective and is eager to hear what, if anything, the Obama administration has planned for the military front. Obama thus far has laid back on such plans, or even on whether he would consider drawing up such plans for such a contingency.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak toured the United States last week, and in his meetings with Clinton, national security adviser James Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barak outlined what is shaping up as his proposal to synthesize the two emerging crises: Barak wants Netanyahu to announce a bold peace initiative with the Palestinians as a means of freeing Israel diplomatically to operate in the military sphere should the need arise with Iran.

It’s not clear what his American interlocutors thought of the plan or whether it has resonance in Israel. A key element involves bringing into the government the centrist opposition party, Kadima, whose leader, Tzipi Livni, in recent weeks has indicated receptiveness to such overtures.

An Israeli initiative is necessary “to prevent our descent into isolation,” Barak told reporters after his meetings. “It is the only way to achieve real freedom to act when there are security events.”

JTA

 
 
 
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