Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahus visit to Washington in late March took place amid signs of growing diplomatic tensions with the Barack Obama administration. When United States Vice-President Joe Biden was in Tel Aviv in mid-March, the Israeli government had chosen to announce that it had given the go-ahead for the construction of more settlements in Jerusalem. Biden, one of Israels strongest supporters throughout his political career, was in the region to help jump-start the stalled American-backed peace process. The Palestinian Authority (P.A.), backed by the Arab League, had backed the resumption of the dialogue process despite the continuance of Israels settlement building in West Bank and siege of Gaza.
The announcement by the Netanyahu government that it would go ahead with settlement building in the Palestinian-dominated parts of Jerusalem was a direct snub to the Obama administration. The P.A., already under criticism from other Palestinian groups, had no option but to announce that it would not participate even in indirect talks involving Israel. David Axelrod, Senior Adviser to the U.S. President, said that the Israeli governments announcement seemed calculated to undermine the peace talks. President Obamas special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, had worked overtime to convene the proximity talks between Israel and the P.A. Now the talks can be resumed only if Netanyahu backtracks on his commitment, a prospect many Israelis consider unlikely.
Israeli legislator Eitan Cabel of the Labour Party, which is part of the ruling coalition, told the media in Israel that Netanyahu decided to spit into Obamas eye, this time from up close. According to Israeli newspapers, Biden angrily told the Israeli Prime Minister that his action undermines the security of our troops fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.
President Obama, according to reports, has given Netanyahu a deadline to roll back his plans for the new settlements and give a written undertaking that he will not unilaterally build more settlements in future. The P.A. has said that it will return to the negotiating table only after there was a freeze on settlement building in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.
East Jerusalem is the designated capital of the Palestinian state once it is established. Since A.D. 638, barring brief interludes, Jerusalem has been under the control of various Muslim dynasties that had their roots in Egypt, Iran, Iraq or Turkey. The Jewish influx started only in the late 19th century. Jews, of course, had a religious and cultural connection with Jerusalem because of the Temple on the Mount, known as al-Haram-al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) to Muslims. The Al Aqsa mosque was built adjacent to this. It is the third holiest site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina. As the Israeli peace activist and former Minister Uri Avnery noted, there will be no peace without an independent Palestinian state, no Palestinian state without East Jerusalem.
Most of the Jews who lived in Palestine during the rule of various Islamic rulers converted either to Christianity or to Islam. The migration in the 20th century to Palestine was mainly of European Jews. The Palestinians of today are the descendants of the early Jews who inhabited Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. East Jerusalem was captured by Israel during the 1967 war with the Arab states. Since then, 180,000 Jewish settlers have moved into Jerusalem in addition to the 300,000 already living in equally illegal West Bank settlements. The settlers have taken over 47 per cent of the West Bank. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council in late March that all settlement activity is illegal, but inserting settlers into Palestinian neighbourhoods in Jerusalem is particularly troubling.
The Arab League has fully supported the P.A.s decision not to hold talks with Israel until all settlement activity is stopped. Arab states, despite their differences on other important issues, have adopted a united stance on Jerusalem. The Arab League summit held in Tripoli in the last week of March has been hailed as Jerusalem conference. A $500-million fund has been earmarked for the Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to counter the Israeli settlement expansion. The Palestinians say that the amount is a modest one compared to the $17.4 billion that Israel has spent on its illegal expansion programme in East Jerusalem. The Arab League had provided political cover for the P.A. to resume dialogue with Israel.
Vice-President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the decision to construct more settlements in Jerusalem as insulting. More galling to them was the timing of the announcement, coming as it did when the secondmost powerful U.S. official was visiting the country. The Israeli announcement came after Biden had reiterated absolute, total and unvarnished support to its closest ally in the region.
Official U.S. anger was in full display when the Israeli Prime Minister was in Washington. Not even photographers were invited to cover the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. An Israeli newspaper wrote that Netanyahu had received the treatment reserved for the President of Equatorial Guinea. There was no official banquet or Rose Garden ceremony that is usually accorded to friendly visiting heads of state. Netanyahu made his exit from the White House through a back door.
There is a view that the current face-off is the most serious one between the two countries since the Suez Crisis of 1956. But many others believe that the tough stance being adopted by the Obama administration is mere posturing, mainly to convince a sceptical Arab world that the U.S. is an honest mediator in its conflict with Israel. It fears that the Obama administration, like the previous administrations, will revert to type sooner than later and blindly support the illegal acts of the Zionist state. It is to be noted that the Obama administration has unconditionally re-authorised the loan guarantee programme and the massive economic aid for Israel, estimated to be more than $7 million a day.
In the last week of March, a $210-million arms deal was inked between the two countries. The U.S. will be gifting three Super Hercules planes as the cost will come under the annual military aid budget for Israel. A separate $3-billion deal has been signed for F-35 warplanes for Israel. Since 1996, the U.S. has been giving $3 billion a year to the tiny state, making the latters army the fifth most powerful in the world. Before President George W. Bush demitted office, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries whereby the U.S. committed an assistance package of $30 billion to Israel over the next 10 years. The U.S. tax-payers money is being doled out to a state which today is on the verge of joining the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the club of rich countries. Israels gross domestic product is much larger than that of Egypt though its population is only one-tenth of the most populous Arab country.
While Netanyahu was in the U.S., Hillary Clinton chose to share a platform with him at a meeting organised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). She reiterated that relations between the two countries remain rock solid. She did, however, say that the expanding Israeli settlements undermine mutual trust. Netanyahu, going by his actions and words in Washington, seems to have taken the Obama administration for granted. In his speech to AIPAC, he went to the extent of stating that Jerusalem is not a settlement, it is our capital. He gloated that Israel would continue to receive American support from one President to the next, from one Congress to the next. His optimism was not very much off the mark. The U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, while welcoming him, said that in Congress, we speak with one voice on Israel.
American officials have been saying for some time that the actions of the Israeli government, the most right-wing one elected to office so far, have been detrimental to American interests in the region. The Obama administration has given the utmost priority to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular and West Asia in general. Washington seems to have belatedly acknowledged that its unblinking support for Israels brutal colonisation policies has completely alienated Arab and Muslim public opinion, making the going tough for pro-American regimes in the region.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the head of the U.S. militarys Central Command, recently told the U.S. Senate Arms Committee that the Palestine issue foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of U.S. favouritism towards Israel. The General, whose views are said to be highly valued by President Obama, was obviously suggesting that Israels policies were harming American interests and putting American soldiers in harms way, particularly in Iraq. He told the Senators that the inability to reach a comprehensive peace settlement in West Asia presented distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests.
Israel is facing embarrassment on other fronts too. The parents of Rachel Corrie, the young American crushed to death by a military bulldozer in Gaza in 2003, are suing the government in an Israeli court. The international media are giving the hearings good coverage. The parents of another victim, Tristan Anderson, are also suing the government. Anderson, who was shot by the Israeli army while he was attending a protest meeting in Ramallah in 2009 against the separation wall that Israel is constructing on the West Bank, is lying brain dead in an Israeli hospital. Israel has been using lethal and excessive force on a regular basis against unarmed civilians.
The siege of Gaza, which completed 1,000 days in March, has also not been forgotten. In June 2009, the U.S. President called for an immediate end to the continuing humanitarian crisis there. But he has done precious little to pressure the Israeli government to end the military and economic siege.
The Obama administration has also debunked the U.N.-sanctioned Justice Richard Goldstone Report, which has documented Israeli atrocities during the war on Gaza in late 2008. But the European Parliament passed a resolution in March supporting the report, which calls for further investigations into war crimes committed by Israel. Last December, the E.U. had passed another resolution which called for Jerusalem to be the shared capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state.