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U.S.-Israel crisis: This time, it’s serious

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is joined by his wife, Jill, as he lays a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (The Jewish Agency for Israel)

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is joined by his wife, Jill, as he lays a wreath at the tomb of Theodor Herzl in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (The Jewish Agency for Israel)

Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Avi Ohayon / Flash 90 / JTA)

Caption: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (Avi Ohayon / Flash 90 / JTA)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Last summer, when the relationship between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations was getting off to what appeared to be a rocky start, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was at pains — twice — to deny that he had been "summoned" to the State Department for a dressing down.

One such "meeting" was actually a friendly phone call, he said, and the other was a routine getting-to-know-you meeting. The distinction was key, he told journalists: When the State Department actually "summons" an envoy, "That’s serious."

Welcome to the serious zone: Oren’s spokesman, Jonathan Peled, confirmed to JTA that the ambassador indeed had been "summoned" for a meeting last Friday with James Steinberg, the deputy secretary of state. The summons came as the controversy engendered by Israel’s announcement of new construction in eastern Jerusalem during last week’s visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden showed no sign of abating.

"It wasn’t a meeting," Oren told the Washington Jewish Week in an interview at a fund-raiser for a Washington-area school on Sunday night. "It was a summoning. I was told it was the first time that any ambassador had been summoned at that level."

Oren said he is "working hard to avert an escalation. We’re working very hard to get back to what we need to do to make peace and stop Iran from making the bomb. We have apologized publicly and privately profusely."

Israeli media reported Monday that in a conference call Saturday night with other Israeli diplomats, Oren — a New Jersey-born historian who has gone out of his way to talk up the U.S.-Israel relationship — said that ties were at a 35-year nadir. The previous low presumably was the Ford administration’s threat to "reassess" the relationship with Israel because of perceived Israeli reluctance to make the necessary concessions to achieve peace with Egypt.

The controversy erupted last week with what both sides agreed was a humiliation for the U.S. vice president, considered to be Netanyahu’s best friend in the Obama administration. Biden had come to allay Israeli concerns that Obama’s outreach to Muslims would come at Israel’s expense; just as he was getting ready to meet with Palestinian officials as part of the administration’s push to restart peace talks, Israel announced plans to build 1,600 housing units in Ramat Shlomo, part of disputed eastern Jerusalem.

Biden, furious, condemned the announcement — several times — but went ahead with a speech that affirmed the unshakeable U.S.-Israel bond. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the timing and said he would probe how the announcement was made without his knowledge.

"There was a regrettable incident, that was done in all innocence and was hurtful, and which certainly should not have occurred," Netanyahu said in his statement. "We appointed a team of directors-general to examine the chain of events and to ensure procedures that will prevent such occurrences in the future."

Israeli officials and leaders of pro-Israel organizations are asking the Obama administration to dial down the tension, in tones ranging from the pleading to the berating.

"The Obama administration’s recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said in a statement Sunday night, a rare direct broadside from an organization that generally operates behind the scenes. "AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish state."

The statement comes just a week before the start of AIPAC’s annual policy conference, widely seen as the most important pro-Israel event in Washington.

Like an array of other Jewish groups, AIPAC wants the matter kept quiet: "We strongly urge the administration to work closely and privately with our partner Israel, in a manner befitting strategic allies, to address any issues between the two governments."

That echoed a plea Sunday morning from Netanyahu, to his Cabinet as much as to the Obama administration.

"I suggest that we not get carried away — and that we calm down," he said. "We know how to deal with these situations — with equanimity, responsibly and seriously."

But Obama administration officials, who accepted Netanyahu’s explanation that he had been blindsided by the announcement of new housing units for Jews in eastern Jerusalem, nonetheless were not ready to let the matter go.

In addition to Friday’s summons of Oren, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described a conversation the same day between Netanyahu and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in exceptionally blunt terms. Clinton objected to the announcement "not just in terms of timing, but also in its substance," Crowley said.

The Netanyahu-Clinton phone call reportedly lasted 45 minutes — and by most accounts sounded less like the "conversation" Oren says he had with Steinberg and more like a lecture.

Haaretz reported that Clinton, who is scheduled to speak at the AIPAC conference next week, wants three demands met beyond Netanyahu’s offer to check into how the announcement was made. In order to defuse the U.S.-Israel tensions, Clinton wants Israel to reverse the decision to add housing in eastern Jerusalem, make a substantive gesture to the Palestinians, such as a prisoner release, and agree to peace talks that encompass not only borders but final-status issues such as refugees and Jerusalem.

On Monday, Netanyahu told a Likud Party meeting that construction in Jerusalem would not stop. However, his defense minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak said more needed to be done to assuage the Americans. Barak hinted at a Labor Party meeting that failure to do so could lead his party to withdraw from the government. "Peace talks are a first priority for Israel and for the entire region," Haaretz quoted Barak as saying. "The political process is in the interest of the state and it is a subject in which the Labor party believes. It is one of the things that anchors us in the government and drives us to work within it."

In the past, the pro-Israel community has been able to rally push back against demands like those of Clinton. The Ford administration backed down from its threat of "reassessment" in 1975 after AIPAC garnered more than 70 signatures from the Senate signaling that Congress would override any presidential attempt to cut back funds. That was the lobby’s first signal victory, accruing to it the “don’t mess with us" reputation it maintains until now.

Now, however, the president can count on a Democratic Congress less likely to break ranks with him in a Washington that has become much more partisan. Notably, Republicans — including Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives — have sided with Israel in the matter, but as of Monday the only Democrat to speak out for Israel has been Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), perhaps the most-pro-Israel stalwart in her caucus. Other more powerful pro-Israel reliables — like Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs committee — have been silent.

It’s unclear, however, what impact they would have if they did speak out. Unlike President Ford in 1975 or President George H.W. Bush in 1991, Obama is not threatening any cut in assistance to Israel, rendering Congress’ "purse strings" powers superfluous. By holding back on such threats, the Obama administration can ignore Congress and continue to reproach Israel.

In fact, it is Obama’s stated commitment to "tachles" — increased assistance to Israel in the realm of military cooperation, such as missile defense, and ramped up pressure on Iran to make its nuclear intentions transparent — that has made the latest flap particularly upsetting to members of the president’s circle who are close to Israel and have been pushing Obama on these issues.

In a posting on the Daily Beast Web site, Martin Indyk, a Clinton confidante and former ambassador to Jerusalem who maintains an informal advisory role to the administration, recalled that the last time Netanyahu led Israel in the late 1990s, his boss, Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, was similarly embarrassed during a visit. She called Indyk, then the ambassador to Israel, and shouted: "You tell Bibi that he needs to stop worrying about his right wing and start worrying about the United States."

It’s time to heed that advice, Indyk said. "There is one way to repair the damage to U.S.-Israel relations and to his own standing with the Israeli public," he wrote of Netanyahu. "He could immediately declare that in order to boost the chances for negotiations, he is calling a halt to all provocative acts in Jerusalem — including announcements of new building activity in east Jerusalem, housing demolitions, and evictions. He should also establish a mechanism in the Prime Minister’s Office to ensure that his decision is implemented."

The State Department sounded an Albright-sounding note on Friday, when Crowley stated that Clinton wanted to make clear to Netanyahu that "the United States considers the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship — and counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip; and to reinforce that this action had undermined trust and confidence in the peace process, and in America’s interests.”

“The secretary said she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States’ strong commitment to Israel’s security,” Crowley said. “And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words but through specific actions that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process."

There are signs of a push-back strategy among Israel and its Washington supporters: Frame Palestinian provocations as more damaging than the announcement of building in Jerusalem.

Headlines in Israel on Monday focused on calls by the Palestinian leadership to protest the rededication of the Hurva, an ancient Old City synagogue destroyed by Jordanian forces. P.A. officials reportedly have said that the building threatens the integrity of the Al Aksa mosque, although the synagogue is nowhere near the compound.

"If the Obama administration is pressing Israel these days over an untimely, but at bottom bureaucratic, step toward construction in Jerusalem, they must press the Palestinians harder over inciting their people with an inflammatory, but false, threat to their mosque on the Temple Mount," the Orthodox Union said on its Web site. "This is a present call to violence and danger."

Berkley listed Palestinian violations in her statement: "Where, I ask, was the administration’s outrage over the arrest and monthlong incarceration by Hamas of a British journalist who was investigating arms smuggling into Gaza? Where was the outrage when the Palestinian Authority this week named a town square after a woman who helped carry out a massive terror attack against Israel? It has been the P.A. who has refused to participate in talks for over a year, not the government of Israel. Yet once again, no concern was lodged by the administration."

The Obama administration routinely condemns Hamas terrorism and has chided the Palestinian Authority for dragging its feet on talks; the State Department’s most recent human rights roundup cited Palestinian incitement as an ongoing problem. However, Obama officials have not condemned the naming of the square after Dalal Mughrabi, a woman who died leading a 1978 terrorist attack that killed 38 Israeli civilians, including 13 children. The Palestinian Authority postponed the official dedication until after Biden left to avoid embarrassing him, though less formal ceremonies reportedly did take place.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Cabinet appeared to get Netanyahu’s message about the need to avoid future embarrassments of U.S. officials (and, for that matter, of the prime minister himself); the poorly timed announcement of the Ramat Shlomo building was believed to be part of a "more right wing than thou" contest of wills between two ministers of the religious Shas Party, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Housing Minister Ariel Attias. For his part, Attias was cowed, pleading on Israel Radio on Monday morning to "look forward" and asking "experienced and wise people" in the United States and Israel not to let matters further deteriorate.

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