The latest on the supposed rift between Israel and (usually) compliant Washington

A running, mainstream media commentary on Israel’s current spat with Washington is below. Countless articles are now appearing across the world detailing the supposed crisis between the close allies.

Frankly, I’m skeptical. I don’t doubt that the Obama administration is upset with Israel’s apparent dissing of Vice President Biden but what matters is a serious reversal of building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Without threatening financial or diplomatic punishment, Israel has nothing to worry about. Is this coming? Watch this space.

The Guardian:

President Barack Obama and the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, are on a collision course today in a row described by a senior Israeli diplomat as the worst crisis between the two countries for more than three decades.

An Obama administration source told the Guardian that the White House and US state department are intent on pushing Israel into substantive peace talks with the Palestinians and will not shy away this time as they did when the last effort ended in embarrassing failure in September.

“No one gets anywhere by accusing each other. We are hoping to lay the foundations for negotiations,” the source said. In order to get negotiations under way, the US is demanding that Netanyahu cancel or freeze plans to build 1,600 planned Jewish homes in Palestinian East Jerusalem. But Netanyahu, speaking at a meeting of his own Likud party, showed no signs of backing down. “The building in Jerusalem, and in all other places, will continue in the same way as has been customary over the last 42 years,” he said.

The Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, in a weekend telephone call to other Israeli diplomats, expressed alarm about the extent of the confrontation.

The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth quoted the normally cool Oren, an academic-turned diplomat, as saying: “Israel’s ties with the United States are in their worst crisis since 1975 ”¦ a crisis of historic proportions.”

The Wall Street Journal editorial:

In recent weeks, the Obama Administration has endorsed “healthy relations” between Iran and Syria, mildly rebuked Syrian President Bashar Assad for accusing the U.S. of “colonialism,” and publicly apologized to Moammar Gadhafi for treating him with less than appropriate deference after the Libyan called for “a jihad” against Switzerland.

When it comes to Israel, however, the Administration has no trouble rising to a high pitch of public indignation. On a visit to Israel last week, Vice President Joe Biden condemned an announcement by a mid-level Israeli official that the government had approved a planning stage—the fourth out of seven required—for the construction of 1,600 housing units in north Jerusalem. Assuming final approval, no ground will be broken on the project for at least three years.

But neither that nor repeated apologies from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prevented Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—at what White House sources ostentatiously said was the personal direction of President Obama—from calling the announcement “an insult to the United States.” White House political chief David Axelrod got in his licks on NBC’s Meet the Press yesterday, lambasting Israel for what he described as “an affront.”

Since nobody is defending the Israeli announcement, least of all an obviously embarrassed Israeli government, it’s difficult to see why the Administration has chosen this occasion to spark a full-blown diplomatic crisis with its most reliable Middle Eastern ally. Mr. Biden’s visit was intended to reassure Israelis that the Administration remained fully committed to Israeli security and legitimacy. In a speech at Tel Aviv University two days after the Israeli announcement, Mr. Biden publicly thanked Mr. Netanyahu for “putting in place a process to prevent the recurrence” of similar incidents.

The subsequent escalation by Mrs. Clinton was clearly intended as a highly public rebuke to the Israelis, but its political and strategic logic is puzzling. The U.S. needs Israel’s acquiescence in the Obama Administration’s increasingly drawn-out efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear bid through diplomacy or sanctions. But Israel’s restraint is measured in direct proportion to its sense that U.S. security guarantees are good. If Israel senses that the Administration is looking for any pretext to blow up relations, it will care much less how the U.S. might react to a military strike on Iran.

As for the West Bank settlements, it is increasingly difficult to argue that their existence is the key obstacle to a peace deal with the Palestinians. Israel withdrew all of its settlements from Gaza in 2005, only to see the Strip transform itself into a Hamas statelet and a base for continuous rocket fire against Israeli civilians.

Israeli anxieties about America’s role as an honest broker in any diplomacy won’t be assuaged by the Administration’s neuralgia over this particular housing project, which falls within Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries and can only be described as a “settlement” in the maximalist terms defined by the Palestinians. Any realistic peace deal will have to include a readjustment of the 1967 borders and an exchange of territory, a point formally recognized by the Bush Administration prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. If the Obama Administration opts to transform itself, as the Europeans have, into another set of lawyers for the Palestinians, it will find Israeli concessions increasingly hard to come by.

That may be the preferred outcome for Israel’s enemies, both in the Arab world and the West, since it allows them to paint Israel as the intransigent party standing in the way of “peace.” Why an Administration that repeatedly avers its friendship with Israel would want that is another question.

Then again, this episode does fit Mr. Obama’s foreign policy pattern to date: Our enemies get courted; our friends get the squeeze. It has happened to Poland, the Czech Republic, Honduras and Colombia. Now it’s Israel’s turn.

Foreign Policy’s The Cable:

As Washington went to bed Monday night, officials, wonks, and reporters were still struggling to digest where the diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Israel stood.

Following Friday’s public dressing down of Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, announced via a State Department spokesman’s readout of an angry call with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Israeli side thought that a détente would follow and cooler heads would soon prevail. The Obama administration had made its point, and the Israeli side believed the harsh rhetoric would subside while Clinton waited for Netanyahu to respond to the list of demands she had read to him.

But that plan unraveled and confusion set in Monday after a roller-coaster couple of days where public and private signals crossed and different parts of the Obama administration seemed to be sending different messages.

As of late Monday evening, even Special Envoy George Mitchell didn’t know what to do, after having delayed his trip back to the region by one day. A State Department official said Monday afternoon that Mitchell wasn’t sure he could go ahead with his planned meetings unless he heard something constructive from the Israelis. Maybe he would just go on to Moscow for the scheduled meeting of the Quartet, the high-level diplomatic contact group that includes the European Union, Russia, the United Nations, and the United States.

Late Monday evening, the same official told The Cable that Mitchell would still leave Washington Monday night, “but he wants to be informed by the Israeli response before he departs.” That struck Israeli sources as odd because in Israel it was the middle of the night at the time.

“They are waiting for some kind of response from Prime Minister Netanyahu and I’m under the impression the response is coming soon,” an Israeli official who had no direct knowledge about Netanyahu’s thinking told The Cable. But, he added quickly, “If they don’t like the response … then what?”

So what happened between Friday and Monday?

A State Department official confirmed to The Cable that initially there was a U.S. effort to avoid talking about Clinton’s list of demands in order to allow Netanyahu to mull them over without feeling public pressure from all sides. It had been agreed an answer would come within “a couple of days,” the Israel official said.

But then on Sunday, White House political advisor David Axelrod doubled down, talking openly about the administration’s displeasure over the announcement that Israel would move forward with 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem, calling it an “affront” and an “insult.”

“We thought they would ratchet down the rhetoric on Saturday, but Axelrod didn’t tone it down,” the Israeli official said.

That led to a push on Sunday night and Monday by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful lobbying group that is usually in step with the Israeli government, calling on the administration to step back from the ledge. AIPAC was involved in encouraging…  almost a dozen senior Congressmen and Senators issue statements on Monday criticizing the White House for escalating the war of words.

More worrying, perhaps, is the growing realization that Clinton’s demands on Netanyahu might be impossible for him to fulfill, and therefore the administration may have drawn lines that will further reduce the possibility the “proximity” talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians can get off the ground.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that Clinton wants Netanyahu to prove Israel is “willing to address the core issues at the heart of the peace process.” The Israeli official said that there is no belief inside the Israeli government that final status issues such as borders can be negotiated through a third party, even the Americans.

Clinton also wants Netanyahu to reverse the announcement of the new East Jerusalem homes, but that also may be a complete nonstarter for the Israelis, because it would force them to abandon their long-held position that any issues related to Jerusalem are their own domain and prerogative.

A further complicating factor is that the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party has threatened to withdraw from Netanyahu’s governing coalition if he puts Jerusalem up for discussion in peace talks with the Palestinians. Shas controls the Interior Ministry, which issued the settlement announcement that started the crisis in the first place.

“It’s in Netanyahu’s power to try to reverse the decision, but I doubt politically that can be achieved. Beyond that I don’t see him as willing to do so,” the Israeli official explained. “It could be a tactical starting point. But on the issue of Jerusalem per se, nobody’s led the administration to believe there can be any kind of movement on our part.”

And so, Mitchell heads to the region Tuesday without knowing what his plans are; Clinton heads to Moscow for a Quartet meeting later this week in which nobody knows what the path forward is; and Netanyahu prepares a response that he must know will conflict with what the White House wanted, at least as of last Friday.

And time is of the essence because Netanyahu is coming to Washington at the end of the week and Clinton is scheduled to speak at the AIPAC convention next Monday.

Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg tried to lend an adult voice to the discussion Monday evening.

“Making peace in the Middle East is not easy, but you have to keep at it. And you have to deal with the fact that we have challenges on both sides,” Steinberg said. “It’s the responsibility of both sides to help create the conditions that make it possible to engage on this difficult task. Even with that, success is not guaranteed.”

“Despite the difficulties and despite differences that we have with Israel over certain things, in particular the settlements, we have a deep and abiding commitment to Israel’s security,” Steinberg continued.

“That we pursue this not because we are uninterested in Israel’s security, but precisely because we’re interested in Israel’s security.”

American Jewish groups take sides (and most love Israel far more than Obama).

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