Settlements strain Israel's relationships with U.S. and Hillary Clinton

Outside the AIPAC conference, Binyamin Netanyahu was mocked. Inside, Hillary Clinton's sober message on Israel was received coolly.
Outside the AIPAC conference, Binyamin Netanyahu was mocked. Inside, Hillary Clinton's sober message on Israel was received coolly. (Brendan Smialowski/getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

As members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee entered the Washington Convention Center on Monday for their annual conference, a man stood outside, handing out copies of what he called "today's statement."

On AIPAC letterhead, the statement trumpeted: "AIPAC Calls on the Israeli Government to Immediately Defuse Tensions with United States; Urges Israel to Freeze All Settlements."

This was news: Even the pro-Israel lobbying group was not going to tolerate the humiliation of Joe Biden by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's government, when it announced the construction of more housing in a disputed area of Jerusalem during the vice president's trip to the Jewish state.

National Public Radio broadcast the statement to millions on "Morning Edition." ABC News ran with it, too.

Alas, AIPAC spokesman Josh Block pronounced the statement a forgery.

Indeed, the real AIPAC officials rallied to the Netanyahu government's defense. The only rebuke they delivered Monday was of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, their guest speaker. AIPAC Executive Director Howard Kohr, departing from his prepared text, took a swipe at Clinton for calling Israel's insult of Biden "insulting."

"When disagreements inevitably arise, they should be resolved privately, as is befitting close allies," Kohr lectured. As Clinton waited backstage, he also informed her that the two nations "are allies, friends -- they should treat each other as such." Further, he said, alluded to the housing construction: "Jerusalem is not a settlement." The lights went up, and the 7,500 in the hall jumped to their feet, applauding.

Sensing an opportunity, the loyal opposition joined with AIPAC in taking Netanyahu's side against the Obama administration. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), the Republican speaker at AIPAC's dinner Monday night, seconded Kohr's view that allies should "disagree quietly." Added Graham: "Howard said it best: Jerusalem is not a settlement! . . . No government in the United States should ever look at Jerusalem as a settlement!"

The place went wild.

The crowd got even more raucous when Netanyahu himself took a shot at the Obama administration. "Jerusalem is not a settlement -- it's our capital!" he said. The unrepentant prime minister nodded, waved and thanked the crowd for the extended applause. "Everyone knows that these neighborhoods will be part of Israel in any peace settlement," he said.

The audience was rather less enthusiastic as Clinton defended her criticism of Israel. "New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust" between Israelis and Palestinians, she said. "And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. It undermines America's unique ability to play a role, an essential role, in the peace process."

The crowd was still and quiet. The secretary of state worked her way rapidly through her text.

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