As U.S.-Israel rift continues, Netanyahu finds himself in a bind

By Janine Zacharia
Friday, March 26, 2010

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was welcomed home Thursday night with signs reading "Obama, No You Can't" and "Netanyahu Stand Strong" after a trip to Washington that appeared only to widen a two-week-old rift between the close allies over Israeli housing construction.

The support expressed by a few dozen people at the entrance to Jerusalem belied widespread doubts here about Netanyahu's handling of relations with President Obama. The premier's tough U.S. visit came during a week in which Israel also found itself at odds with Britain, which on Tuesday expelled an Israeli diplomat over what it said was the use of forged British passports in an alleged Mossad operation.

Netanyahu had hoped to use his visit to defuse tensions sparked by the announcement of Israeli plans to build 1,600 homes in a disputed area of Jerusalem. The announcement was made during Vice President Biden's visit to Israel this month, and it thwarted what was supposed to be a celebration of fresh negotiations on talks toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The Obama administration now says that failure to resolve the Middle East conflict is harming U.S. national security interests in the region.

Over the past year, Netanyahu "pushed the envelope with Obama," said Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli peace negotiator, referring to haggling over a full settlement freeze that had precluded a resumption of peace talks. Now that Obama has pushed back, Netanyahu "is worried and afraid," Beilin said.

The coalition issue

Some observers speculated that Netanyahu might be forced to consider bringing Kadima, the centrist party led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, his arch political rival, into his coalition to alleviate the tensions with the United States. But Gideon Ezra, a Kadima member, said that might not be possible because of resistance from within Netanyahu's Likud bloc: Incorporating Kadima would mean concessions such as halting construction in East Jerusalem and dismantling unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank, steps that Likud members oppose, Ezra said.

Others said Netanyahu would simply search for ways to buy time until the midterm U.S. elections in hopes that Obama would lose support and that more pro-Israel Republicans would be elected.

"The prime minister does not understand to what extent the current government's composition causes damage to its relationship with the U.S. and the international community," said Yoel Hasson, who advised Ariel Sharon when he was the prime minister. "I am most concerned about the long-term strategic partnership."

Deficit of trust

What is most clear now as the crisis in the U.S.-Israel relationship continues is that Netanyahu was truly stunned by the Obama administration's unprecedented willingness to criticize Israel over building in the annexed part of Jerusalem and that deferring negotiations on the city's future will become increasingly difficult if the news media continue to report on construction there.

The United States, like the rest of the world, has never recognized Israel's sovereignty over territory occupied in the 1967 war. Still, the two countries always "managed to work out a modus vivendi because more compelling strategic concerns trumped whatever they were quarreling about," said Dore Gold, who was a political adviser to Netanyahu during his first stint as prime minister more than a decade ago.

Gold cited Israel's 1997 decision to build the Har Homa development in East Jerusalem just after Netanyahu signed a deal turning over most of the West Bank city of Hebron to Palestinian control. At the time, the United States vetoed two proposed U.N. Security Council resolutions criticizing Israel for the project.

The difference was that then-President Bill Clinton believed Netanyahu could make progress toward peace, observers said. Obama does not appear to share that sentiment. "There was trust between the president and our prime minister," Hasson said. "Now we don't have it."

Netanyahu under fire

In a pre-Passover toast to city employees Thursday, Jerusalem's mayor, Nir Barkat, said of the current crisis: "The whole world is watching us. This obligates us, Jews and Arabs, to work together, without discrimination, to advance the city's interests."

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