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New Israel-US Tensions

Harshly critical and personal remarks about Secretary of State John Kerry by Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon were condemned by a State Department spokesman Tuesday, who called them “offensive and inappropriate.” According to a Yediot Acharonot report, based upon unnamed sources, in private conversations Ya’alon called Kerry’s determined efforts to broker a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians “obsessive” and “messianic.”

Ya’alon has not denied making the comments, but did seek to soften the personal tone of his criticism. In an address to the Knesset, Tuesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his disapproval of Ya’alon’s comments, without referring to them directly. Meanwhile, administration sources in Washington said they expect Netanyahu to distance himself from Ya’alon’s comments.

 

Ya’alon who was not quoted directly in the article, complained that since the peace talks began last summer, there have been no real negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, but rather, only between Israel and the Americans. He is also said to have remarked that, “the only thing that can save us is that John Kerry will get a Nobel Peace Prize and leave us alone.”

 

Ya’alon also dismissed Kerry’s West Bank security arrangements proposal as “not worth the paper it is printed on” because it contains “neither security nor peace.”

 

Ya’alon also said that Kerry “had nothing to teach me about the conflict with the Palestinians. I live and breathe the conflict with the Palestinians. I know what they think, what they want and what they really mean.”

 

The published comments created an instant storm of controversy and recriminations.

 

State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said that what Ya’alon reportedly said about Kerry was “offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel’s security needs. Secretary Kerry and his team, including General [John] Allen [who prepared the security proposal], have been working day and night to try to promote a secure peace for Israel because of the Secretary’s deep concern for Israel’s future. To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”

 

NO DENIAL

 

After the Yediot report was published, Ya’alon issued a statement saying, “Good relations between the United State and Israel are important to us. The United States is our greatest friend and most important ally, and when there are disagreements, we air them in private, including with Secretary of State Kerry, with whom I have held many discussions about the future of Israel.”

 

Ya’alon told a group of high school students in Ofakim Tuesday that, “even if there are disagreements between us and the Americans in our discussions, they shouldn’t overshadow our shared goals and interests.”

 

He also said that he does not believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main cause of regional instability. He suggested that after 20 years of failed attempts to reach a peace agreement, it might be time to stop trying to solve the conflict, and learn how to manage it.”

 

Ya’alon rejected the argument that Israel must make peace now because, “time isn’t on our side” and claimed that “Israel’s security situation is better today than in previous decades.”

 

A GENTLE REBUKE FROM NETANYAHU

 

In remarks to the Knesset Tuesday, Netanyahu emphasized, “respecting our important ties to the United States,” and said, “even when we have disagreements with the United States, they are always substantive and not personal.”

 

President Shimon Peres told the Knesset, “the deep friendship with the United States is a central element of Israel’s security and a catalyst for peace in the Middle East. Secretary of State John Kerry’s determined efforts to achieve peace are evidence of this American stance.”

 

Ya’alon’s remarks were also criticized by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. In a statement, Lieberman cited the “special relationship” between Israel and the US, and said, “it is inappropriate and unhelpful to both sides to conduct a loud, public argument. There is no call for personal attacks, even if there are, at times, disagreements.”

 

Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, one of Israel’s negotiators in the peace talks, defended the talks as being “held in such a way that Israel’s interests are safeguarded, primarily its security.” Referring to Ya’alon’s statements indirectly, she said, “It is possible to oppose the negotiations in a practical and responsible way rather than lash out and destroy our relations with our closest friend.”

 

REVEALING LIKUD’S TRUE COLORS?

 

Opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog, chairman of the Labor Party, was more general in his condemnation. He said that, “the defense minister’s insulting and hurtful tongue-lashing of Secretary of State Kerry reveals the Likud’s true colors. . . It’s an organized ideology that does not believe in any kind of solution or separation from the Palestinians. Ya’alon is preparing the ground for a binational state. This is the end of the Zionist vision and of a democratic state with secure borders.”

 

BIDEN’S VISIT

 

The controversy over Ya’alon’s remarks exploded the day after Vice President Joe Biden, came to Israel to represent the United States at Ariel Sharon’s funeral. Before returning to Washington Monday night, Biden met with Netanyahu and Peres to discuss the negotiations with the Palestinians, which are now at a critical stage, and to reassure them that the US is committed to enforcing the sanctions on Iran during the six month freeze period on Iran’s nuclear program which is about to begin.

 

According to an unnamed US official aboard Biden’s plane, Biden and Netanyahu held a “strategic discussion” on how best to move the peace talks forward, during a four-hour working dinner at the prime minister’s residence.

 

Netanyahu told Biden that judging by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas recent public comments, he is not ready to make the tough decisions necessary for the negotiations to succeed.

 

While assuring Netanyahu that the administration remains committed to existing sanctions on Iran, Biden told him that it opposes a Senate bill to impose new sanctions on Iran which is supported by the pro-Israel Aipac lobby, as well as many pro-Israel senators and congressman from both parties.

 

Biden also met with Peres and told him Israel’s security depended on “genuine accommodation” with a Palestinian state. Referring to the violence and unrest across the region Biden said, “the only place where there is a possibility for an island of stability is quite frankly between the Palestinian people and the Israeli people, in two secure states respecting one another’s sovereignty and security. This is one of those opportunities, one of those moments in history. It has to be seized.”

 

Biden said he believes that Netanyahu “is up to the challenge,” and expressed hope that Abbas also “will be up to the task.”

 

Coincidentally, before returning to Washington the night before Ya’alon’s comments created a storm of controversy, Biden described Kerry as “passionate” about achieving a successful outcome to the peace negotiations.

 

KERRY MEETING WITH ARABS IN PARIS

 

Kerry was in Paris over the weekend, where he met with Arab League foreign ministers to ask for their support in the peace negotiations, and claimed that they gave it to him.

 

He also met with PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki, who later told Voice of Palestine radio that Kerry needs to “improve” his latest proposals for a framework under which to continue negotiations to take into consideration the Palestinian demands.

 

MORE CRITICISM OVER SETTLEMENTS

 

During his talks with Netanyahu, Biden emphasized that the US still opposes any further settlement building as “not constructive” to the effort to reach a peace agreement.

 

That comment comes in the context of a government announcement last week of the approval of construction plans for 1400 units of Jewish housing in East Yerushalayim and the West Bank. The announcement had been delayed by two weeks until after Secretary of State Kerry had left the country to avoid the kind of diplomatic incident which marred Biden’s visit to Israel in March, 2010. Biden, who was in Israel at the time trying to revive peace talks, was angered by a routine Housing Ministry announcement of a new Jewish housing project in Ramat Shlomo which the Palestinians seized upon as proof of a lack of good faith by Israel.

 

Netanyahu claimed that he was unaware that the housing announcement was being made, and Biden seemed to accept the apology, but upon his return to Washington, the White House publicly raised the issue again, creating a temporary crisis in US-Israeli relations. In the wake of that crisis, Netanyahu issued new orders to everyone in the government to clear all new housing announcements with his office to avoid similar crises in the future.

 

Netanyahu has continued to support Israel’s right to build in Yerushalayim and the large settlement blocks in the West Bank, in accordance with guidelines that the Bush White House negotiated with Ehud Olmert’s government, while being more careful with the timing of announcements. However, it appears that there is never a time when Israel can announce new construction without drawing criticism from the Obama administration.

 

PART OF THE DEAL THAT RESTARTED THE TALKS

 

The issue came up again when Secretary of State John Kerry wanted to renew the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks last year. Given the collapse of previous negotiating efforts, Kerry knew that he had to build into the structure of the talks incentives for both sides to keep them going. For the Palestinians, the incentive was the promise of the release of the most notorious terrorists from Israeli jails. For Netanyahu, the incentive was tacit US approval for large scale West Bank construction, to pacify his pro-settler coalition partner, Habayit Hayehudi.

 

Publicly, Israel announced that during the 9 months of negotiations, it would release a total of 104 terrorist murders in four installments. Privately, all parties understood that major new construction announcements would accompany each terrorist release. Even though Israel has lived up to its side of the bargain, it still has come under increasing pressure with each terrorist release not to announce new construction projects.

 

Nevertheless, the Israeli government is going forward with new construction plans. Last week’s announcement was tied to the terrorist release on December 29.

 

WHERE THE HOUSING WILL BE BUILT

 

Ironically, Friday’s announcement included 600 new housing units in the same Ramat Shlomo chareidi neighborhood of Yerushalayim which triggered the crisis during Biden’s 2010 visit. The Housing Ministry also announced plans for 801 new housing units in 8 West Bank communities, including 227 in Efrat, 169 in Elkana, 102 in Emanuel, 86 in Karnei Shomron, 78 in Alfei Menashe, 75 in Adam, 40 in Ariel and 24 in Beitar Illit.

 

The Housing Ministry also reissued a request for bids for the construction 532 new housing units in the Yerushalayim neighborhoods of Pigat Ze’ev, Ramot and Neve Yaakov which were not taken up by builders when they were originally offered.

 

PREDICTABLE CRITICISM

 

Predictably, PA chief negotiator Saeb Erekat seized upon the housing announcement as another excuse for the Palestinians to abandon the peace talks. Even though he was well aware that it was an integral part of the deal which enabled the negotiations to resume, Erekat called it “a message from Netanyahu to Kerry not to come back to the region to continue his efforts in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”

 

The dovish Israeli left wing also predictably condemned the housing announcement. Labor Party leader Yitzchak Herzog said that it was “immoral” for the government to “turn the prisoner release into a real estate deal.”

 

Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid, which is part of Netanyahu’s government, also criticized the new housing announcement, and said that he would do everything he could to block it.

 

The reaction of a State Department spokeswoman Jan Pseki was to criticize Israeli settlements construction as “illegitimate.” She also said, “it is never helpful to have steps taken that are not conducive to our efforts to move forward on peace.”

 

The building announcement was also criticized by visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who said that, “it is clear that the continued building of settlements really hurts the [peace] process.

 

CHAREIDI COMPLAINTS

 

Criticism of the building announcement also came from an unusual source, chareidi newspapers and elected leaders, which complained that only a small fraction of the new housing in the West Bank is being built for the chareidi population, for whom shortage of affordable housing is most severe.

 

Writing in the Israeli edition of Yated Ne’eman, D. Rozen said that Housing Minister Ariel’s claim that over 50% of the new units were intended for chareidim was not true.

 

He noted that in the West Bank, only 126 out of the 801 new units will be built in the religious communities of Emanuel and Betar Illit, while 40% of the Jewish population in the West Bank is chareidi. Rozen wrote that “this is another example of the degrading treatment of the chareidi community by the current government’s Housing Ministry.

 

UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman and Shas leader Aryeh Deri said that the distribution of the new housing was further proof of systematic discrimination against the chareidi community by Housing Minister Ariel, who is a member of the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party. Betar Illit Mayor Yaakov Rubinstein said that the chareidi community deserved to get at least 300 new apartments, and that there was plenty of room in his city for them.

 

Ariel responded to foreign critics of the new construction announcement by confirming that it had been coordinated in advance with Kerry. Ariel then added, “Even if the United States does not approve of the construction, it will continue. The United States is our greatest ally, but they also sometimes take actions we do not approve of.”