News Analysis: How bad is U.S.-Israeli flap?   2010-03-30 06:22:13 FeedbackPrintRSS

by Matthew Rusling

WASHINGTON, March 29 (Xinhua) -- With the United States and Israel seeking a way to stabilize a relationship that has become wobbly, the two sides are showing no signs of resolving the spat. But the two have gone through rough patches before and the current row is unlikely to derail the relationship between Washington and its long-time ally, experts said.

David Pollock, expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, pointed out a number of tiffs the two nations have had in the past.

In 1969-70, President Richard Nixon pressured Israel to accept a new cease-fire with Egypt along the Suez Canal and even slowed arms shipments to Israel. In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger announced a "reassessment" of U.S. policy and again slowed aid to press Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's new government for a withdrawal from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan pressed Israel hard to stop bombarding Beirut, Lebanon and withdraw from most of that country, in part through public hints of changes in the relationship, Pollock said.

In 1996 and again in 1999, President Bill Clinton refused to see Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and publicly hinted that Israelis should vote for Netanyahu's political rivals, he said.

And President George W. Bush privately pressed Israel on some points, such as allowing Hamas to run in the Palestinian election in 2006, though without a public "crisis," he said.

Still, there is no easy way out of the current spat and resolving it might require Israel to reshuffle its government and create a new coalition that can smooth things over, he said.

And the current kerfuffle may be worse than many past rows.

"I think it's the worst moment in the U.S.-Israeli relations in over 30 years," said Ehud Yaari, Israel expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank, who spoke via a Council on Foreign Relations conference call Thursday. "But I hope it's only a moment and not an extended period."

The two countries have still failed to reach a deal on Israel's settlement in East Jerusalem, a spokesman for Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Friday. The settlement has been the center of controversy since U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel earlier this month, when Israel announced it would build 1,600 new Jewish housing units.

And Netanyahu has so far showed no signs of reversing his decision, in spite of U.S. insistence. A closed White House meeting last week between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu yielded no results and Netanyahu was met with an icy reception.

Yaari reckoned the Israeli delegation felt they fell into a trap and that Netanyahu felt humiliated.

"There is quite a degree of amazement (in Israel) at the way he was treated," he said. "(He) did not expect the Obama administration to insist on a freeze of all activities in Jerusalem, including those Jewish neighborhoods."

And that sentiment has been mirrored in the Israeli press, as Israeli journalist Eitan Haber, in the Hebrew version of the daily Yedioth Aharonot, criticized the White House's reception toward the Israeli prime minister.

Still, Netanyahu on Sunday downplayed the tensions, saying the two countries are allies who can resolve the issue. U.S. officials made similar statements earlier this month.

Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, billed the White House visit as Obama's attempt to determine whether Netanyahu can be a partner in peace negotiations, but said the U.S. president is showing signs of dissatisfaction with the Israeli prime minister.

Obama wants to be clear with Netanyahu that the administration views the settlements as one of the main obstacles of peace, she said.

The Obama administration feels the Palestinians have met their commitments under the "roadmap" for peace -- a framework to which both sides agreed -- but that Israel has not, as settlement building has continued, she said.

Some observers noted the previous U.S. administration did not react as harshly to the construction of new settlements, and Dunne said Obama is taking the issue more seriously than prior U.S. presidents.

For his part, the U.S. president is taking heat at home from pundits who contend that he is alienating Washington's main ally in the Middle East. Critics also say the president is floundering in his attempts to move the peace process forward, an area where many of his supporters expected results.

Kamran Bokhari, regional director of Middle East and South Asia at global intelligence company Stratfor, said that while the public gets excited over electoral promises, "there is that golden rule of geopolitics that says what you want and what you can actually have are two different things."

Editor: Mu Xuequan
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