Experts See U.S.-Israel Crisis As Wake-Up Call

Obama watches as Netanyahu and Abbas shake hands i i

hide captionPresident Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands last September in New York. Current tensions have laid bare problems between longtime allies U.S. and Israel and the cloudy prospects for peace.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Obama watches as Netanyahu and Abbas shake hands

President Obama watches as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands last September in New York. Current tensions have laid bare problems between longtime allies U.S. and Israel and the cloudy prospects for peace.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Officials in the U.S. and Israel on Wednesday continued efforts to publicly downplay the most serious rift between the two allies in nearly two decades.

But unfolding events — including the Israeli foreign minister's assertion Wednesday that Israel will not comply with White House demands to not build new housing in East Jerusalem — suggest that the path to comity remains perilous.

The controversy has laid bare the allies' deteriorating relationship and cloudy prospects for peace in the Middle East, where both Jerusalem and Jewish settlements in disputed areas remain central to restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

"This is a major crisis," says Dan Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The United States and Israel have to find a way to stand back from the brink."

Necessary Breach?

The public crisis was triggered 10 days ago, with a diplomatic insult heard round the world: The East Jerusalem housing plan was announced while Vice President Biden was visiting Israel. Biden was there to symbolically kick off a planned restart of peace negotiations in the region.

The View From Israel

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government has proved over the past year that it is "committed to peace, both in words and action."

His comments came in response to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's demand that Israel halt plans to build housing in East Jerusalem to "demonstrate its commitment to peace negotiations with Palestinians."

As of late Wednesday, Netanyahu had not yet directly responded to Clinton's demand that the housing plan be halted.

Meanwhile, as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, residents remain unfazed in Ramat Shlomo, the East Jerusalem community where the 1,600 homes at the center of the current controversy are to be built.

Palestinians see East Jerusalem as their capital under a two-state solution. Israelis see it as their right to expand their housing options in existing Jewish areas there.

In subsequent days, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanded a halt to the project, and Middle East envoy George Mitchell's trip to the region to restart peace talks was canceled.

Jewish organizations in the U.S. have urged both sides to ratchet down the rhetoric and to emphasize the importance of a continued close relationship.

And in Israel, Netanyahu has been forced to beat back assertions by his brother-in-law that Obama is anti-Semitic, while extremists have hung posters depicting the U.S. president as a PLO sympathizer.

As of late Wednesday, Netanyahu had not yet directly responded to Clinton's demand that the housing plan be halted.

The fast-moving situation has developed into what some have characterized as a necessary reality check for both Israel and the U.S.

"This is a wake-up call, and a good one for people to start focusing on the real issues," says Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. "This highlights where we really are instead of pretending that everything was going as normal."

An Impossible Demand?

It was less than a year ago that Israel first rejected an Obama administration demand for an end to new settlement construction as a precursor to peace negotiations.

Israel's repudiation was not only an embarrassment to the new administration but a blow to the stalled negotiations between Israel and Palestinians. "That set us back about 20 years in the diplomatic process," says Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"[The administration] did actual damage by setting a high bar, and backing down," Dunne says. "We're in danger of that happening again."

Dunne is among analysts who have questioned why the administration would again make a demand that, politically, is virtually impossible for Netanyahu, who leads a right-wing coalition government, to agree to.

"I'm still a little puzzled where they're going," Dunne says. "There does seem to be a decision by the Obama administration to escalate this particular conflict."

Obama's Path

When he was elected, Obama committed to renewing diplomacy in the Middle East.

Expectations were high, Middle East expert Daniel Levy has written. "And now so is the disappointment."

Prominent Middle East watchers have criticized Obama for not visiting Israel after traveling to Cairo last year to deliver a historic speech to the Muslim world. Though he has continued to express commitment to Israel and its friendship with the U.S., analysts like Brumberg of the U.S. Institute of Peace have lamented the president's lack of leadership in the Middle East.

"In some sense, it has reminded me of his efforts on the health care bill, and suddenly realizing he had to lead and not simply be reactive," Brumberg says.

The current crisis comes, says Telhami, as prospects for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution in the Middle East fade with the passage of time. Demographics — Palestinian population growth is outpacing that of Israelis — are also increasingly complicating the situation.

The events of the past week or so, Levy writes on his Prospects for Peace blog, have demonstrated "that papering over the chasm now existing between the U.S. and Israeli positions is an ever-more transparently flawed exercise."

The Way Forward?

On Friday, Clinton will be in Moscow for talks with the so-called Quartet Group of peacemakers, which includes the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.

It was to have been a happy meeting, Dunne says, at which the attendees would bless the renewed Middle East peace talks. Now, she says, the world will be waiting to see what kind of statement emerges from the talks — where non-U.S. members are far more likely to push for a statement critical of Israel.

And Monday, Netanyahu flies to Washington to appear before a gathering of members of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby. Clinton is also scheduled to appear.

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