(CNSNews.com) – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has apologized four times for the fact that an announcement about a new housing project in Jerusalem was made while Vice President Joe Biden was in Israel.
It appears the Obama administration intends to use the incident as a lever to force new concessions from Israel.
During a weekly cabinet meeting Sunday, Netanyahu described as “regrettable” the timing of the announcement – made by a ministry controlled by an ultra-Orthodox coalition partner – and said it “should not have happened.”
Although Biden twice during his visit to the region condemned the decision to build 1,600 housing units in a part of the city claimed by the Palestinians, the administration appears unwilling to let the matter lie.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in a 45-minute phone conversation Friday morning, gave Netanyahu a dressing down, and the same day the Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, was summoned to the State Department to hear further protests, this time from Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg.
Clinton later told NBC and CNN in separate interviews that the Israeli decision was “insulting,” and on Sunday, President Obama’s advisor David Axelrod, on ABC’s This Week, called it an “affront” and “destructive.”
Axelrod said he would not discuss what conversations had been held with the Israelis aside from the public comments, but he thought the Israelis understood clearly “what we want moving forward.”
Israeli media said the government was coming under pressure to announce concessions to the Palestinian Authority (P.A.).
The Jerusalem Post said the U.S. was believed to be pressing Netanyahu to cancel the housing project, and to take further “confidence-building” steps such as releasing more Palestinian prisoners.
P.A. Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has threatened to withdraw from planned U.S.-mediated indirect talks because of the issue, and Abbas’ aide, Nabil Abu Rdainah, said at the weekend that for the talks to take place, Netanyahu would have to annul the housing decision.
To do so, however, would go counter to the prime minister’s position that his government’s temporary freeze on “settlement” construction – agreed last October under pressure from Washington – explicitly does not include Jerusalem.
Israeli governments left and right have historically agreed that the city will remain Israel’s undivided capital. Should Netanyahu be seen to compromise on the issue by including Jerusalem in the freeze, his coalition could fracture.
The Palestinians want parts of Jerusalem as the capital of a future state, and the P.A. has been demanding that Jerusalem be included in the settlement construction moratorium.
Arab governments weighed in at the weekend too, with Egypt calling for stepped-up international pressure on Israel and Jordan’s King Abdullah warning that Israel’s actions were hindering efforts to achieve peace.
‘Basic, fundamental, and strategic shared interests’
Relations between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations have been cordial but not overly warm. Israeli media reported Monday that Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, had told fellow Israeli diplomats in a weekend phone briefing that bilateral relations were at their lowest ebb since the mid-1970s.
Netanyahu and Clinton are both due to address the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington later this month. And in mid-April the Israeli leader is scheduled to attend a nuclear security summit hosted by Obama in Washington.
AIPAC in a statement Sunday said the U.S. relationship with Israel “enjoys vast bipartisan support in Congress and among the American people.”
It urged the Obama administration to “make a conscious effort to move away from public demands and unilateral deadlines directed at Israel, with whom the United States shares basic, fundamental, and strategic interests.”
Other pro-Israel groups in the U.S. also voiced dismay at the administration’s approach.
“We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States,” Anti Defamation League director Abraham Foxman said in a statement.
“One can only wonder how far the U.S. is prepared to go in distancing itself from Israel in order to placate the Palestinians in the hope they see it is in their interest to return to the negotiating table.”
The Zionist Organization of America questioned the tone of the criticism, and the underlying assumptions of the administration’s stance. It argued that “Jews living and building in eastern Jerusalem has nothing to do with the absence of peace or the harming of peace prospects because the lack of peace stems from Palestinian rejection of Israel as a Jewish state, incitement to hatred and murder, refusal to arrest terrorists and outlaw terrorist groups.”
In contrast, a left-wing Jewish organization, J Street, called on the administration to take “even stronger action” to push forward attempts to reach a “two-state solution” to the conflict.
And National Jewish Democratic Council chairman Marc Stanley voiced full support for Biden, “including his frank and honest words delivered in response to the unfortunately-timed announcement of plans for new housing units made by Israel’s Interior Ministry.”
‘Glorification of a terrorist’
On Thursday, a day after Biden had met with P.A. leaders in Ramallah, the youth division of Abbas’ Fatah faction held a ceremony nearby to rename a public square in honor of a Palestinian terrorist involved in a 1978 attack that cost 35 Israeli lives.
Dalal Mughrabi and 10 other Fatah members infiltrated northern Israel by boat, seized a busload of day trippers and then traveled down a coastal highway, throwing hand grenades and shooting. By the time Israeli forces ended the attack 38 Israelis, 13 of them children, had been killed.
Mughrabi, who was killed during the assault, has been hailed by Fatah as a hero and model for all Palestinian women. Schools in the West Bank and Gaza and summer camps have been named after her.
The American Jewish Committee on Sunday urged the Obama administration to condemn the Fatah move, comparing the silence from Washington to its condemnation of the Israeli housing announcement.
AJC executive director David Harris said “the glorification of this terrorist sends a clear signal that Fatah, conventionally regarded as a moderate party, has no serious commitment to securing a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”
Earlier this year, Netanyahu responded to plans to rename the public square after Mughrabi by urging Abbas to stop what he called “incitement” to terrorism, adding “this is not how peace is made.”