As U.S.-Israel Relations Sink, Who Will Blink First?

Israeli police detain a left-wing Israeli activist. i i

Israeli police detain a left-wing Israeli activist during a protest Friday in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against Israeli settlements and occupation. The protest came after Israel announced controversial plans to build new homes for Jews. Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images
Israeli police detain a left-wing Israeli activist.

Israeli police detain a left-wing Israeli activist during a protest Friday in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah against Israeli settlements and occupation. The protest came after Israel announced controversial plans to build new homes for Jews.

Alessio Romenzi/AFP/Getty Images

The Obama administration's Middle East envoy is supposed to return to the region this week, but with U.S.-Israeli relations in crisis, George Mitchell's plans are now in flux.

The U.S. is still fuming about Israel's announced plans to build in a part of Jerusalem that Palestinians hope will be their future capital, an announcement that coincided with a fence-mending trip to Israel last week by Vice Presiden Biden.

Now the pressure is on Israel to do some fence-mending of its own, according to Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel who teaches at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

"Israel did a really in-your-face move with the vice president in town and, I think, it needs to find a way to offset that by responding to what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked for in her phone call with [Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu," Kurtzer says.

Netanyahu has apologized for the timing of the construction announcement, but he made clear that he is not planning to cancel plans to build 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem, as Clinton reportedly requested during a March 12 phone call to the Israeli prime minister.

Clinton's spokesman, P.J. Crowley, would say only that the U.S. is still waiting for a formal Israeli response to Clinton's requests, which he said involved not only the housing project but also the "willingness to engage seriously" in the peace process and address the core issues.

Meanwhile, Israeli media reported Monday that in a conference call Saturday night with other Israeli diplomats, Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren said that ties were at a 35-year low.

Time is short for Netanyahu to try to defuse this crisis. He is due in Washington next week to speak to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobby, which is urging the Obama administration to tone down its criticism of Israel.

Clinton, who is also to address the AIPAC conference, has made clear that the Israelis need to restore confidence in the bilateral relationship and in the peace process the U.S. is trying to revive.

Kurtzer says the "proximity" or indirect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that the U.S. wants to start are "unambitious." Still, U.S. credibility is at stake.

"Our ability to move this peace process forward carries with it an implication that we actually have some power. And when an ally basically sticks it to us, it's a terrible sign of weakness, and in that respect, U.S. interests in the region are set back," he says.

According to her spokesman, Clinton told Netanyahu in the nearly 45-minute phone call that Israel's actions are hurting U.S. interests. Military officials at U.S. Central Command are said to be particularly worried about that and presented their concerns in an unusual briefing to Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in January.

David Makovsky, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, says the Obama administration should understand that there is anti-Americanism in the region not just because of the U.S. position on Israel.

"We do recognize that terrorists exploit this issue, but even if we had progress on this issue, does anyone really believe that al-Qaida would disappear or sectarian differences in Iraq would disappear or Iran would not seek a nuclear weapon?" he asks.

Makovsky says that Netanyahu has some work to do to improve relations, perhaps by firing the interior minister who announced the controversial housing plan.

"There should be a step taken to demonstrate that Israel does not take the United States for granted," he says. But he also cautions the United States not to use this dispute to "call into question the broad contour of the bilateral relationship."

Biden said in a speech in Israel last week that there has been progress in the Middle East only when there is "no daylight between the United States and Israel." Makovsky says those words still stand.

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