Subscribe to The Jewish Standard free weekly newsletter

 
Blogs
 

entries tagged with: Washington Institute For Near East Policy

 

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

 
 

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

image
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

image
President Barack Obama lunches with Elie Wiesel in the Oval Office’s private dining room on Tuesday. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
 
 
 
Page 1 of 1 pages
 
 
S M T W T F S
1 2 3 4 5
6 7 8 9 10 11 12
13 14 15 16 17 18 19
20 21 22 23 24 25 26
27 28 29 30 31