Israeli Settlement Plans Touch Off Political Tensions
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
The confrontation between the U.S. and Israel, set off by an ill-timed announcement, is getting even hotter. It was during a visit by Vice President Biden aimed at promoting peace talks, that Israel announced a predictably controversial plan to build hundreds of Jewish homes in East Jerusalem.
Over the weekend, a top adviser to President Obama called the announcement an insult, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Israel's prime minister that it sends a deeply negative signal. We reached NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro for more, in Jerusalem.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So, would you you call this a crisis, there in Israel, and how are Israelis reacting to it?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The prime minister is trying to publicly downplay it, but I think it's clear to everyone that this is a major crisis, Renee. Israel's press is using headlines like "Up in Flames" to describe what is going on between the Americans and the Israelis and their relationship. And the prime minister is coming in for harsh criticism here.
The problem for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is that he is caught in the middle. There is now a great deal of pressure from the Americans for concessions. According to reports today, in that phone call Hillary Clinton made to the prime minister, she asked him to rescind the building construction order. But Netanyahu also has to placate his right-wing coalition. They would be outraged if any such concession was made.
There is talk that it could cause his government to collapse. Analysts here say he's facing crunch time; he has to make a decision one way or the other. And no choice, they say, is a good one. Offend, perhaps fatally, his partners in government - or a further escalation in the confrontation with its biggest ally, the U.S., at a time when Israel sees itself facing a possible nuclear threat from Iran.
MONTAGNE: How did it happen that this incident came about now?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Renee, the timing of the announcement was, I think, simply too much to bear. Joe Biden was here last week to make amends, to placate an Israeli public that is largely leery of the Obama administration. It was also a visit to announce the resumption of peace talks - albeit, indirect ones - brokered by the U.S.
Instead, what Joe Biden got was what was called here a big slap in the face. It made the administration look as if the Israelis were making fools of them, essentially. Settlements have been one of the big points of contention between the U.S. administration and the Israeli government. And to have that announcement happen while the vice president was here, despite the fact that Netanyahu said he was surprised by the decision, it looks deliberate.
There is something else. There are reports the United States military now views the Israeli-Palestinian impasse as threatening American national security interests. Their view is that the lack of progress is making America look weak in the region, and that could have repercussions in Iraq and Afghanistan, two important theaters of war.
MONTAGNE: And as of this morning, what are the Palestinians saying? They were obviously upset last week at the announcement - not just the timing, but the announcement itself - but where has that gone?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: U.S. Envoy George Mitchell is arriving here later this week, and you can't really envy him. Palestinian leaders say they will not engage in indirect negotiations until the Jerusalem order is rescinded. The Jerusalem decision also deeply embarrassed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. He had agreed to indirect talks only days before. And he also has to answer to a deeply skeptical and angry Palestinian public.
There is, you know, a great deal of tension here on the ground. Clashes have been taking place over the past few days. In Jerusalem itself, there is a massive Israeli police presence in the eastern part of the city, and Israel has maintained a closure of the occupied West Bank in order, it says, to prevent further unrest. So this is playing out, actually, on the ground here, too.
MONTAGNE: And finally, what do you expect to happen now?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu is in a corner. Historically, analysts say, the Israeli public doesn't like leaders who antagonize Israel's strongest ally. But he could essentially defy the U.S. because his political life is at stake. So, we'll really have to see. But most analysts here say he's facing crunch time, and he's going to have to make a choice one way or the other.
MONTAGNE: Speaking to us from Jerusalem, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Thanks very much.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.