As a sceptical Middle East awaits a long-promised speech that US President Barack Obama will deliver in Cairo later this week, a rift between the United States and Israel over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is becoming deeper and unusually publicly visible. 'People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed,' said a former US ambassador to Israel.
The growing rift between the US and Israel
As a sceptical Middle East awaits a long-promised speech that US President Barack Obama will deliver in Cairo later this week, a rift between the United States and Israel over the issue of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is becoming deeper and unusually publicly visible. 'People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed,' said a former US ambassador to Israel. "The divide between the United States and Israel over West Bank settlements deepened Thursday after Israel rebuffed the Obama adminstration's strongest demands yet that it freeze all building there," The Wall Street Journal reported. "After meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House on Thursday, President Barack Obama stressed that Israel's obligations toward peace include 'stopping settlements' and supporting a Palestinian state. His comments followed a bluntly worded statement Wednesday evening by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "Obama 'wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural-growth exceptions," Mrs Clinton said, in the administration's most explicit renunciation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's West Bank policies. Her comments appeared to leave Mr Netanyahu no alternative but to choose between his right-wing base and Washington." The New York Times noted: "Several American presidents, from Ronald Reagan to George W Bush, have called on Israelis to halt settlement activity, to no avail. The question now, Middle East experts said, is how far Mr Obama is willing to go to make that happen. " 'Hillary Clinton's statement was notable because the language was stronger than we've heard in years,' said Ali Abunimah, the co-founder of Electronic Intifada, a Web site that analyses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 'And clearer than we've heard in years. But the burden of proof is still on them. If it's just going to be strong statements, that's not enough.' "Administration officials have not said whether there is an 'or else' attached to their demand for a settlement freeze." Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a former United States ambassador to Israel said: 'People in the American Jewish community and in Israel are sick of settlement activity. The whole zeitgeist has changed." At Foreign Policy, Laura Rozen said: "Last night, shortly after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists that the Obama administration 'wants to see a stop to settlements - not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,' Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a confidante. Referring to Clinton's call for a settlement freeze, Netanyahu groused, 'What the hell do they want from me?' according to his associate, who added, 'I gathered that he heard some bad vibes in his meetings with [US] congressional delegations this week.' "In the 10 days since Netanyahu and President Barack Obama held a meeting at the White House, the Obama administration has made clear in public and private meetings with Israeli officials that it intends to hold a firm line on Obama's call to stop Israeli settlements. According to many observers in Washington and Israel, the Israeli prime minister, looking for loopholes and hidden agreements that have often existed in the past with Washington, has been flummoxed by an unusually united line that has come not just from Obama White House and the secretary of state, but also from pro-Israel congressmen and women who have come through Israel for meetings with him over Memorial Day recess. To Netanyahu's dismay, Obama doesn't appear to have a hidden policy. It is what he said it was. " 'This is a sea change for Netanyahu,' a former senior Clinton administration official who worked on Middle East issues said. The official said that the basis of the Obama White House's resolve is the conviction that it is in the United States' as well as Israel's interest to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Meanwhile, the Deutsche Presse-Agentur reported: "German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has demanded that Israel put an end to all settlement building in the Palestinian territories, in a newspaper interview published Saturday. "It is 'not acceptable' to found new settlements or expand existing ones in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, Steinmeier said in a joint interview with the German press agency DPA and German daily Sueddeutsche. "Both the German and US governments agreed on this point, the foreign minister added. Steinmeier called for new efforts in the Middle East peace process, and said the European Union and US President Barack Obama's administration needed to 'speak with one voice'." Haaretz reported: "Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Saturday, and briefed him on his recent trip to Washington, saying that the US was committed to bringing about an end to Israeli construction in the West Bank settlements. "In a joint press conference following the meeting, the Palestinian president said that 'when the American administration talks about Israel's duty to stop the settlements - including natural growth - it is a very important step.' "Abbas added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must recognise the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before peace negotiations, which began at the US Annapolis conference, could resume." The Washington Post's Jackson Diehl, after a meeting with the Palestinian delegation to Washington said: "Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze - if he did, his centre-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while US pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. 'It will take a couple of years,' one official breezily predicted. Abbas rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession - such as recognising Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees. "Instead, he says, he will remain passive. 'I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,' he said. 'Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality ... the people are living a normal life.' In the Obama administration, so far, it's easy being Palestinian." In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall wrote: "Elections in Lebanon and Iran; a long-promised Obama speech to the Muslim world in Cairo; summits with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and a growing rift between the US and Israel. The Middle East is heading into one of those watershed periods that could define the region for years to come. "The countdown begins on Wednesday when Barack Obama travels to Riyadh and then to Cairo for a speech to try to bridge the divide between Islam and the west. His officials are giving little away about the content but seem definite on one point. "The president will not use his Cairo platform to spell out the details of his revamped, amalgamated plan for an Arab-Israeli settlement, though he may touch on Palestine. Instead a more broad-brush approach is expected. " 'This is a very important moment for Obama and for the Middle East,' said Rosemary Hollis, of the Chatham House think tank. 'It's important he speaks to Arabs to convince them he wants genuine change. If he wants to turn things around for America, he's got to get on the front foot and show them that he represents a new, clued up, plugged in administration.' "