Wednesday, 24 March 2010

It all boils down to Jerusalem

The past two weeks have been a testing time for what is generally regarded as one of the most stable of alliances between nations – that of Israel and the United States. The diplomatic dust has yet to settle.

From the moment that President Obama took office, it was clear that two of his major policy objectives were to strive for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and to try to build bridges between America and the Muslim world. Only the most cynical would categorise these aims as mutually exclusive, but they were certainly calculated to move the United States into new and unfamiliar territory.

Meanwhile, in Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was heading a fragile coalition heavily dependent on the support of right-wing religious parties. In the general election of February 2009 his Likud party actually won only 26 seats, as against the 27 of Kadima, led by Tzipi Livni. However a greater percentage of the popular vote went to right-wing rather than left-wing parties, and President Shimon Peres accordingly invited Netanyahu to form a government. Over the course of the year, under pressure from the United States, Netanyahu for the first time endorsed the idea of the two-state solution, and in November he managed to persuade a majority of his Cabinet to vote in favour of a 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank.

In describing the step as "designed to encourage resumption of peace talks with our Palestinian neighbours," Netanhayu stressed that the settlement freeze would not be implemented in east Jerusalem. "We do not put any restrictions on building in our sovereign capital," he said.

President Obama's peace initiative began in earnest in January 2010. Having appointed George Mitchell his special envoy to the Middle East the previous autumn, he now despatched him to the region. Mitchell's remit: to facilitate the renewal of negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel that had been suspended on the outbreak of the conflict in Gaza. Slowly, patiently, with skill, Mitchell made his round of all the parties most closely concerned. When it appeared that direct face-to-face talks might prove too large a step in the first instance, he came up with the idea of starting the process with "proximity talks" based on a working model pioneered by Turkey, who for two years acted as honest broker while Israel and Syria exchanged ideas about a possible settlement of their differences.

He sold the idea to Israel's Netanyahu, to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to the Palestinian Authority, to the Arab League. The pieces of the jigsaw were in place. It was a done deal. President Obama decided to send the Vice President, Joe Biden, to Israel to initiate the resumption of negotiations.

But there was a fly in the ointment. The extreme right wing parties in Netanyahu's coalition remained as opposed as ever to any accommodation with the PA that involved curbing the development of either the West Bank settlements or East Jerusalem. The Israeli Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, happened to be also the leader of the extreme right-wing party, Shas. Selecting the moment that the US Vice President arrived in Israel, Yishai allowed the release of an announcement authorising the construction of 1600 new housing units in a district of Jerusalem beyond the "Green Line" –that is, part of the city captured from Jordan in the Six Day War.

This was clearly a calculated statement of defiant opposition to the delicately-balanced agreement on the proximity talks, a slap in the face to the US Vice President, and a insult to President Obama who had invested so much in bringing the two principal parties so far. It was also a knife in the back of the Israeli prime minister. For I believe Netanyahu when he says that he was not party to the announcement. Indeed, he immediately instituted arrangements that should mean that gung-ho maverick actions of the like could never happen again.

Meanwhile there was a diplomatic mess to be cleared up. US Secretary of State Clinton did not mince her words about what had happened – her condemnation was forthright – but at the same time she was careful to emphasis that the underlying bond between America and Israel remained as close, indeed unshakable, as ever. Netanyahu and Clinton had a meeting on Sunday in Washington, before each addressed the annual conference of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). What passed between them can be judged from what each then said to the conference.

In her speech, Clinton reiterated the US commitment to Israel's security and the unbreakable ties between the two nations, while repeating her criticism of construction over the armistice line in Jerusalem. For his part, Netanyahu reasserted Israel's right to continue construction in Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, stressing that the districts in which construction was taking place over the Green Line were ones which it was understood by both sides would stay with Israel in any peace settlement. Therefore, he said, building in these areas in no way precluded the possibility of a two-state solution.

Essentially that is where matters stand. Condemnation of the Jerusalem construction plans has been universal – from the Quartet meeting in Moscow last week, from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, from Hillary Clinton, to mention but a few. Netanhayu is reported to have offered a time-lag on their implementation to allow agreement to be reached on this matter, as part of a wider accommodation. Will this be sufficient to allow the proximity talks to get under way? Time will tell.

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