WASHINGTON (IPS/GIN) – If a recent week was any indication, the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which could scarcely have been smoother during the eight-year presidency of George W. Bush, appears headed for choppy waters.
Since taking office days ago, the new government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been slapped down–at least, rhetorically–by the two most senior members of the Barack Obama administration, including the president himself.
Other steps taken by the administration, particularly its vow to participate fully in multilateral talks with Iran on its nuclear program “from now on,” have bolstered the notion that Washington under President Obama no longer sees eye to eye with the Jewish state, and especially its new right-wing leadership.
The latest developments come as the administration has given top priority to redressing the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, increasingly referred to as “AfPak,” as part of an ambitious strategy that seeks to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” Al-Qaeda. Planning for the new strategy was overseen by Bruce Riedel, a former top Central Intelligence Agency analyst on Middle and South Asia, who has long insisted that resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians would go a long way toward reducing Al-Qaeda’s appeal throughout the region.
That appears to reflect the view of other key administration officials, including Mr. Obama himself who, despite the victory of Israeli parties opposed to a two-state solution and widespread skepticism that progress toward a peace accord is possible in the near term, has repeatedly stressed the urgency of that goal.
The first shot across the Netanyahu government’s bow came in response to the maiden speech by his controversial new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, in which he renounced Israel’s commitment to the Annapolis Conference launched by the Bush administration in November 2007 to get Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to address “final status” issues for a two-state solution rather than become bogged down in satisfying pre-conditions required by the 2003 “Roadmap” for arriving at that stage.
“There is one document that binds us, and it is not the Annapolis Conference,” declared Mr. Lieberman, whose extreme anti-Arab views have gained widespread notoriety here. “That has no validity.”
As noted by the U.S.-based Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Mr. Obama’s response “was swift and came from its highest reaches–the president himself.”
“Let me be clear: the United States strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security,” Mr. Obama said in his address April 6 to the Turkish parliament in Ankara. “That is a goal shared by Palestinians, Israelis, and people of goodwill around the world. That is the goal that the parties agreed to in the Road Map and at Annapolis. That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president of the United States.”
Commentators noted it was the first explicit mention of Annapolis by Obama since his inauguration in January and was thus taken as a deliberate rebuke.
The second slap came a few days later in the wake of a widely noted interview of the new Israeli prime minister by The Atlantic magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg, titled “Netanyahu to Obama: Stop Iran–Or I Will.”
The interview reiterated Mr. Netanyahu’s and other Israeli officials’ increasingly urgent threats to attack Tehran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally, if Washington’s diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear program do not quickly bear fruit.
Asked by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer whether the Obama administration was concerned about Mr. Netanyahu’s threat, Vice President Joseph Biden, who appears to have emerged as one of President Obama’s main foreign policy advisers, cast doubt on its credibility. “I don’t believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that,” said Mr. Biden, adding, “I think he would be ill-advised to do that.”
Subsequent efforts both inside and outside the administration by individuals and lawmakers closely associated with the so-called “Israel lobby” to persuade the White House to soften what appeared to be Mr. Biden’s categorical rejection of unilateral Israeli action were unavailing, according to several sources.
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