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MIDEAST: Clinton Acknowledges “Daylight” Between US and Israel

Eli Clifton

WASHINGTON, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered reassurance Monday to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee that the Barack Obama administration’s “commitment to Israel’s security and Israel’s future is rock solid,” while echoing the words of warning issued by Gen. David Petraeus and Vice-President Joe Biden.

Clinton’s address at the annual conference of AIPAC – a powerful pro-Israel lobby group – comes as the U.S. and Israel are entering the third week of one of the worst bilateral crises since 1975, as the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, reportedly described it on Mar. 13.

Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Clinton said, “Both sides must confront the reality that the status quo of the last decade has not produced long-term security or served their interests. Nor has it served the interests of the United States.”

Clinton’s comments reflected the concerns which have aired in recent days by both members of the administration and the military.

Two weeks ago, Biden, irritated with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ill-timed announcement of new building construction in East Jerusalem, reportedly told Netanyahu that Israeli actions which jeopardise the peace process endanger the security of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The rare suggestion that Israeli actions may hurt U.S. regional security interests was reinforced in a more formal venue last week when Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbours present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the [region].”

Petraeus continued, “Israeli-Palestinian tensions often flare into violence and large-scale armed confrontations. The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel.”

Clinton’s AIPAC address Monday morning offered some of the same criticisms of Israeli policy while reassuring the crowd of 7,000 that the U.S. would continue to guarantee Israel’s security.

“Especially at that venue making clear those commitments was important. Those commitments have been voiced in the past and expressed by the vice president in Israel and it would have been rather eye opening had they not been repeated today,” former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy told IPS.

Levy added, “At the same time, Clinton didn’t say that everything is okay. She didn’t paper everything over. She said the status-quo is not sustainable and that hard choices have to be made.”

“New construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step towards the full negotiations that both sides say want and need. And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit,” said Clinton.

“It undermines America’s unique ability to play a role – an essential role – in the peace process. Our credibility in this process depends on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don’t agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally,” Clinton continued.

The address’ explicit mention of the current tensions emerging after Biden’s visit to the region flew in the face of a request made yesterday by Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, that disagreements between the two allies be handled “privately, as is befitting close allies.”

Israel’s recent decision to announce the construction of 1,600 new residences in East Jerusalem caught the Obama administration off-guard and was interpreted by many as a “slap in the face” of Biden who was beginning a trip of the region in hope of kick-starting proximity talks.

At the time, Clinton referred to the Israeli announcement as “insulting”.

As upset over the Netanyahu government’s settlement announcement was voiced by Biden, Clinton and Petraeus over recent days, AIPAC has been working hard to put pressures on the Obama administration to curb the criticism of Israel.

“AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State. Israel is America’s closest ally in the Middle East. The foundation of the U.S-Israel relationship is rooted in America’s fundamental strategic interest, shared democratic values, and a long-time commitment to peace in the region,” read a statement issued early last week.

The tension between the Obama administration and Netanyahu may see some signs of relaxing this week with Netanyahu scheduled to meet with Clinton Monday and with Obama on Tuesday.

Clinton also took care to emphasise the U.S. commitment to sanctions to keep Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

“Our aim is not incremental sanctions, but sanctions that will bite,” she said.

J Street, a lobby group which seeks greater U.S. leadership in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, issued a full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times.

“It’s time for the Obama administration to seize the opportunity for bold for a two-state solution on the table with the sustained commitment of the United States behind them,” read the ad.

The ad went on to call on Palestinians to “end incitement to violence,” and urged Israelis to “stop allowing extremist settlers and their sympathisers to endanger not only the friendship of the United States, but also the very future of Israel.”

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