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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

 
 

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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