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Holiday over for Israel as Obama lays down the law

Israel, which returns from a holiday season today, is under pressure to answer US questions over a peace process with the Palestinians.

RAMALLAH // Israel went back to work yesterday after a holiday season that has disrupted most of April. For the Israeli coalition government, however, that return is probably even less welcome than to everyone else, with the country expected to come up with answers to US probing over a peace process with the Palestinians.

Barack Obama, the US president, is widely understood to have requested, even demanded, a number of gestures from Israel in order to get a peace process with the Palestinians back on track. These reportedly include a freeze on settlement building in East Jerusalem, an extension to the partial settlement construction freeze elsewhere in occupied territory, and a withdrawal of troops to pre-September 2000 positions in the West Bank.

The holiday season gave Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, some breathing space to formulate a reply to these requests, but it is not at all clear that he has come up with a workable strategy. And, with a former US ambassador telling Israel that it needs to take into account US interests and an administration official ruling out military action against Iran, a key Israeli concern, tensions in US-Israeli relations show no sign of easing.

Mr Netanyahu spent the holiday season trying to avert more confrontation with the United States, but crucially, he has also been keen to keep his right-wing coalition government together. Consequently, he has been telling everyone who would listen that while Israel is eager to get back to negotiations with the Palestinians over a final status agreement, he will not stop Jewish construction, illegal under international law, in occupied East Jerusalem.

Stopping construction there, Mr Netanyahu said in an interview with ABC television on Monday, is "a non-starter". Jerusalem, his foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, added on the same day at a reception at the house of President Shimon Peres, "is our eternal capital and will not be divided". All of which renders Mr Netanyahu's insistence that Israel is willing to discuss Jerusalem in negotiations somewhat moot. With the line taken on Jerusalem, Palestinians will point out that Israel appears to have already pre-empted negotiations on one of five crucial final status issues. Why bother continuing then?

Israel's stance will thus not go down well in Washington, where the Obama administration wants progress on a peace process, said Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel. Mr Indyk is also a former deputy research director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel Washington-based lobbying group, and has traditionally been considered a pro-Israel US establishment voice.

Yesterday he told Israel Army Radio that if Israel sees itself as a superpower that does not need any aid from the United States, then it can make its own decisions. However, "if you need the United States, then you need to take into account America's interests", said Mr Indyk. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Monday, Mr Indyk wrote that "resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a US strategic imperative".

"Given Israel's dependence on the United States to counter the threat from Iran and to prevent its own international isolation, an Israeli prime minister would surely want to bridge the growing divide. Yet the shift in American perceptions seems to have gone unnoticed in Jerusalem," he said. Israel considers Iran's nuclear programme its greatest threat and is widely believed to have prepared contingency plans for a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations. Such a strike, however, is opposed by Washington. US officials yesterday reiterated that they wanted to give diplomacy and sanctions more time.

"Military force is an option of last resort," the undersecretary of defence for policy, Michele Flournoy, said during a press briefing in Singapore. "It's off the table in the near term ? Right now the focus is a combination of engagement and pressure in the form of sanctions." That position will be a disappointment to Israel, which has also seen its accusation that Syria supplied Hizbollah, the Lebanese Islamist movement, with long-range Scud missiles, treated with scepticism in Washington.

Syria says the Israeli accusation was made to coincide with and prevent the first appointment of a US envoy to Damascus since 2005, when the Bush administration accused Damascus of having had a hand in the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. His son, Saad Hariri, the present Lebanese prime minister, lent credence to the Syrian position this week. He compared the reported supply of Scuds to Hizbollah to the non-existent weapons of mass destruction for which a US-led international alliance went to war with Iraq, and where US forces are still deployed and at risk partly because, according to their commander, Gen David Petraeus in March, of the lack of progress in the Palestinian-Israeli arena.

While Washington has delayed the appointment of an envoy to Damascus, the US has refused so far to pass judgement on the affair, suggesting that Israel's credibility in Washington on such matters is not what it has been. okarmi@thenational.ae

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