x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Obama speech strains US-Israel ties

Israeli newspapers describe Obama's endorsement of a future Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, and Netanyahu's response as a "confrontation".

TEL AVIV // The top two Israeli newspapers had one word yesterday to describe the relationship between Israel and its staunchest ally, the United States, following US President Barack Obama's Middle East policy speech. The word was "confrontation".

The mass-selling daily papers, Yediot Ahronot and Maariv, referred to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent rejection of Mr Obama's endorsement on Thursday that a future Palestinian state be based on territories captured by Israel during the 1967 war.

The Israeli premier retorted in a statement from his office that such a withdrawal would endanger Israel's security and leave major Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank outside of the country's borders.

The disagreement may further deteriorate ties between Israel and the US, and comes just months after an Israeli rejection of the US and Palestinian demands for a settlement freeze spurred the collapse of US-backed peace talks.

Yesterday's meeting between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Obama may have been clouded by reports this week of Israel's advancement of plans to build hundreds of new homes in the West Bank.

Last year's US-led peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel were abandoned after Mr Netanyahu went against Mr Obama's requests and ended a 10-month settlement freeze.

Late on Thursday, an Israeli interior ministry committee gave the green light to two projects to construct a total of 1,550 housing units in the Har Homa and Pisgat Zeev settlements around Jerusalem.

Yesterday, the Israeli settlement watchdog Peace Now announced that the Israeli defence minister in late April gave his nod to a plan to build 294 homes in the Beitar Illit settlement and for a new commercial centre to be constructed in the Efrat settlement.

Mr Obama's speech last night on the Middle East won praise from prominent centrist Israeli politicians but was condemned by the Israeli Right, including settler leaders and Mr Netanyahu's ruling Likud party.

Tzipi Hotovely, a pro-settler Likud legislator who opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, said the "framework of the pre-1967 lines is a catastrophe for Israel".

She described Mr Obama's support for those borders serving as the basis for talks as the "essence of American hypocrisy" and added: "The US is fighting [Osama] bin Laden with its right hand and with its left hand wants to give Hamas a state."

Ms Hotovely referred to the surprise pact clinched in early May between Fatah, the secular movement that dominates the Western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and its ex-rival Hamas, the Islamic group that Israel regards as a terrorist organisation. The pact calls for the joint formation of a temporary government and the holding of elections within a year.

Gershon Mesika, the head of a regional council of settlers, said that "a thousand speeches by temporary politicians will not succeed in eroding our eternal right to the land of Israel".

Another settler leader, Danny Dayan, said that "Obama is trying to square a circle - Israel cannot have security in the 1967 borders".

Nevertheless, centrist Israeli politicians urged Mr Netanyahu, who heads a predominantly pro-settler governing coalition, to adopt Mr Obama's stances as a way of reigniting suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.

Tzipi Livni, the head of the centrist Kadima party and the opposition leader, said that Mr Netanyahu "needs to create the conditions for the renewal of negotiations during his visit … especially against the background of Mr Obama's speech".

Ilan Gilon, the head of the parliamentary faction of the left-of-centre Meretz, said in reference to the Israeli leader and to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, whom he referred to by his nickname: "Netanyahu and Abu Mazen should warmly adopt the framework suggested by Obama instead of engaging in evasion and illusions."