US military targets Israeli 'intransigence' By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - The crisis touched off by last week's announcement of Israel's
plans to build 1,600 new homes for Jews in Arab East Jerusalem during a
high-profile visit by United States Vice President Joseph Biden appears to be
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to Washington and a historian who has written
widely on ties between the two nations, called the growing contretemps "the
worst [bilateral] crisis in 35 years" in a teleconference with other US-based
Israeli diplomats on Saturday night, according to a number of published
Twenty-four hours later, the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee
(AIPAC), which advertises itself as "the most
influential foreign policy lobbying organization on Capitol Hill," issued a
statement declaring the administration's condemnations of Israel's behavior as
"a matter of serious concern".
"The administration should make a conscious effort to move away from public
demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel ... " warned the group,
which issued its statement shortly before 2100 hours Sunday night. The timing
served to underline the sense of alarm that has taken hold among supporters of
the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the US.
Netanyahu, along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is expected to
keynote AIPAC's annual meeting in the US this weekend.
Other voices of the so-called "Israel Lobby" issued their own broadsides.
The neo-conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal accused
President Barack Obama of having deliberately "chosen this occasion to spark a
full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally". It
also warned that Israel will be more likely to attack Iran unilaterally if it
"senses that the administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations
At the same time, The Israel Project mobilized its membership to write to the
US Congress and media demanding that the administration, in the words of one
letter received by Inter Press Service, "BACK OFF!!!" Christian Zionists,
including former presidential Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer,
also joined the fray.
But the Obama administration appeared determined to stand its ground on Monday.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters that Washington was
waiting for a "formal response by the Israeli government" to "specific"
requests made by Clinton to Netanyahu during what all parties described as a
tense, 45-minute phone call reportedly made at Obama's direction on Friday
While Washington has not yet commented on what those requests are, the Israeli
newspaper Ha'aretz said they included reversing the East Jerusalem
announcement; offering a major gesture to the Palestinians, such as a prisoner
release; and agreement to peace talks that include final-status issues,
including the fate of Palestinian refugees and East Jerusalem, as well as
While Crowley insisted that Obama's special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian
peace, Senator George Mitchell, still intended to fly to the region this week
to launch US-mediated "proximity talks" on which both parties had agreed two
weeks ago, he refused to set a specific date, describing the current situation
Netanyahu apologized to Biden and reportedly to Clinton for the timing of the
East Jerusalem announcement if not for the actual building plans. He appeared
unrepentant during a meeting of his right-wing Likud Party members of
parliament on Monday.
"Building in Jerusalem and in all other places will continue in the same way
that has been accepted in the last 42 years," he said, in a reference to
Israel's "annexation" - never recognized by the US or any other major power -
of East Jerusalem after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
While the ongoing public crisis was clearly sparked by the coincidence of
Biden's visit and the East Jerusalem housing announcement - almost universally
described by the mainstream US media as a "slap in the face" at the vice
president and by extension at Obama himself - its seriousness appears to be
rooted in what Biden told Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials in private.
According to an account in Israel's mass-circulation Yediot Ahronoth newspaper,
Biden "warned his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world
perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision
about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could
have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against
"This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden reportedly said. "What you're
doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq,
Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.'"
In an important elaboration on these remarks posted on the foreignpolicy.com
website on Saturday, Mark Perry, a writer with long-standing and close ties to
the military brass, reported that Biden's private comments reflected the
collective view of top US military commanders throughout the Middle East
They had been tasked in December by the chief of the US Central Command
(CentCom), General David Petraeus, to submit reports to him about the impact of
Washington's failure to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace on the
perceptions of Arab leaders on US standing and influence.
The result was a briefing presented to the chairman of the joint chiefs of
staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, in January and subsequently communicated to the
White House that underlined the growing conviction in the region that "the US
was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CentCom's mostly Arab constituency
was losing faith in American promises, that Israeli intransigence on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing US standing in the region, and
that Mitchell himself was ... 'too old, too slow ... and too late'."
A subsequent trip by Mullen to Israel - whose purpose was described in the
media as designed to coordinate strategy on Iran - was aimed more at persuading
the Israeli top brass of the importance to the US of achieving progress on
peace talks, according to Perry.
But it became apparent with last week's housing announcement that the message
did not get through, according to Perry, so the administration responded first
with Biden's public condemnation, followed by Clinton's phone call to
Netanyahu, the summoning of Oren for what the ambassador described as an
"extremely harsh" dressing down by Clinton's deputy, James Steinberg, and now
the demand for a "formal response" to her suggestions to Netanyahu.
"There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA [National Rifle
Association], the American Medical Association, the lawyers - and the 'Israel
Lobby'," wrote Perry. "But no lobby is as important, or as powerful as the US
It is likely for this reason - rather than the more-superficial tiff over one
settlement in East Jerusalem - that a plainly worried Oren told his colleagues
that the current crisis was "very serious, and we are facing a very difficult
period in relations", according to reports in the Israeli media.
The fact that Oren referred all the way back to 1975, when then-president
Gerald Ford ordered a "reassessment" of relations with Israel in light of the
latter's rejection of US proposals to move toward peace with Egypt, reinforced
the growing conviction in the US that the crisis is unlikely to be easily
papered over in the absence of major concessions by Netanyahu.
At the time, secretary of state Henry Kissinger defended the reassessment as
necessary "in order to prevent an increasing radicalization in the area and an
increasing tension and, above all, in order to avoid a war in which inevitably
the United States would be involved at least indirectly, given the
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.