As the US president Barack Obama sent leading administration officials to Israel in an effort to breath life into a stagnant peace process while also addressing security concerns that focus on Iran's nuclear programme, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he regarded the visit as routine and not an indication of a rift between the two allies. Special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates led a separate US delegation arriving on Monday.
An American show of force in Israel
As the US president Barack Obama sent leading administration officials to Israel in an effort to breath life into a stagnant peace process while also addressing security concerns that focus on Iran's nuclear programme, the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he regarded the visit as routine and not an indication of a rift between the two allies. Special envoy George Mitchell arrived in Tel Aviv on Sunday and Defense Secretary Robert Gates led a separate US delegation arriving on Monday. A third American team visiting Israel is being led by Mr Obama's national security adviser, Gen James L Jones. On his way to Israel, Mr Mitchell stopped for talks in Damascus. "Following a meeting yesterday with Bashar Assad, the Syrian president, Mr Mitchell also said renewing talks between Israel and Syria was a 'near-term' goal for Washington, and added: 'I told President Assad that President [Barack] Obama is determined to facilitate a truly comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace. That peace means between Palestinians and Israelis, between Syria and Israel and between Lebanon and Israel. And of course, ultimately, the full normalisation of relations between Israel and all of the countries in the region,' Vita Bekker reported for The National. "Mr Mitchell is the first in a parade of high-profile US officials arriving in Israel this week in what appears to be a co-ordinated effort by Washington to ease growing tensions with its ally on the settlements issue and on the approach to Iran's nuclear programme. While Israel has threatened to carry out a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, the Obama administration wants more time to see if its offer of engagement to Tehran bears fruit." The Jerusalem Post said: "At the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commented on the upcoming arrival of Mitchell and three very senior US foreign policy and security figures being dispatched to Israel, saying the visit was routine and not indicative of a rift in the relations between the two countries. " 'These visits are being held as part of the diverse relationship between Israel and the US, a relationship that existed in the past and continues to exist today,' Netanyahu said. " 'Naturally, even within the fabric of friendly relations between allies there are points over which there is not full agreement,' the prime minister continued. 'We are trying to arrive at an agreement so that we can promote our objectives: peace, security and prosperity for the entire Middle East.' "However, both Jerusalem and Washington have lowered expectations for any major breakthrough on the settlement construction issue, despite the upcoming visit to Israel of the administration's Middle East 'A-Team'." Turkey's Today's Zaman reported: "Syria has said it is willing to resume the Turkish-mediated talks if they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, captured in 1967. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he is not willing to cede the territory Syria wants. Recent news reports in Israeli media also suggested that Netanyahu did not want Erdogan's mediation due to his stance against Israel displayed shortly after the Gaza offensive, which killed more than 1,000 Palestinians and has strained relations between Israel and Turkey. But in a statement later in the day, the Israeli Prime Ministry suggested the Israeli government was open to Turkish mediation, saying Turkey was a 'legal channel' for talks with Syria. "In January an angry Erdogan stormed out of a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on the Gaza conflict that included Israeli President Shimon Peres. "Sami Moubayed, a prominent expert on Syrian-Israeli relations, speaking with Today's Zaman, meanwhile, warned that the agenda of the Erdogan-Assad talks would not be limited to the issue of Israel-Syria talks due to improved bilateral relations between Ankara and Damascus. " 'I would not jump to conclusions on the "relaunch of the Israeli-Syrian indirect talks." I don't think the Israelis are ready, or willing, and that is clear from what we hear daily from Israeli officials,' Moubayed, the editor-in-chief of the Syria-based Forward Magazine, told Today's Zaman. " 'There are attempts at pumping life into these talks, but I think that after what happened in Gaza, and because the Israeli elections brought hardliners like Netanyahu to power, bilateral talks, be they direct or indirect, will not happen anytime soon,' Moubayed added." Reuters said: "Benny Begin, a Netanyahu confidant, suggested Turkey's fierce criticism of the Israeli Gaza offensive had damaged Ankara's role as a neutral negotiator and said any negotiations for a peace agreement would have to be conducted directly between Syria and Israel without a negotiator. " 'If this is what they want and how they continue it will be hard to view them as a means for mediating or for conveying messages between us and Syria,' Begin, minister without portfolio, told Israel Radio. " 'The Syrians are posing preconditions, ie saying what the outcome should be from the outset, which of course is unreasonable.' "Syria is seeking the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Israel wants a peace deal including diplomatic recognition by Syria and other political concessions." In an interview with Haaretz earlier this month, Uzi Arad, Mr Netanyahu's national security adviser ruled out the possibility that Israel would return all of the Golan Heights, saying: "if there is a territorial compromise, it is one that still leaves Israel on the Golan Heights and deep into the Golan Heights." Mr Arad asserted that Israel would not relinquish all of the occupied territory for "strategic, military and land-settlement reasons. Needs of water, wine and view." As in the eyes of many Israelis, Mr Obama is now seen as an enemy of the Jewish state, Zvi Bar'el, writing in Haaretz, pointed out that the US president is currently doing nothing more than pushing for the implementation of long-standing policies. "Obama did not invent a new American policy. The United States has long held that the settlements are illegal; the same is true for the status of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The Americans are sticking to the same road map drawn up seven years ago, it's just that Israel apparently didn't notice that the Palestinians have fulfilled the first article in the document almost completely. Military action against Israel has stopped, even from the Gaza Strip, and an increasingly effective Palestinian force in the West Bank is taking action against terror organisations. Israel, in contrast, has not met its road map obligations and continues to argue over the terms of the agreement - as if it never adopted it. Nor can Israel rely on its demand that the Arab states normalise relations with Jerusalem: The obligation of normalisation is conditioned on Israel's withdrawal from all occupied territory. "There is one thing, however, that the United States has changed: its diplomatic behaviour, and its tone. But it is truly difficult to complain about someone no longer willing to stand for the verbal contortions and the lies that Israel has been feeding Washington."