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U.S. and Israel agree on key issues — for now

Caption: During his visit to Washington, Palestinian Authority<br />
President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary<br />
Clinton, June 11, 2010.  (State Dept.)

Caption: During his visit to Washington, Palestinian Authority
President Mahmoud Abbas meets with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton, June 11, 2010. (State Dept.)

WASHINGTON (JTA) – The relationship between the Obama administration, the Netanyahu government and the pro-Israel community is ensconced on all fronts in “agree, for now” mode.

On isolating Iran, everyone agrees — and is pleased — that the new set of U.N. sanctions will make it easier for the United States to enhance its own unilateral sanctions.

Differences are looming, however, on whether the U.S. sanctions should carve out exemptions for countries that helped push through the U.N. sanctions.

On peace talks, the consensus is to move from U.S.-brokered proximity talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians to direct talks.

That was the message Obama administration officials and U.S. Jewish organizational leaders made forcefully last week to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas during his Washington visit, and it is one that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama likely will make the centerpiece of their summit later this month. And all sides want Abbas to step up when it comes to dealing with Palestinian incitement against Israel.

There is less agreement, though, on whether the direct talks — if they ever launch — would address the core issues of Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

Iran and peace talks are the perennials when it comes to how the United States and Israel coordinate policy, but more temporal issues also are proving critical in defining the relationship.

The fallout from Israel’s deadly May 31 raid on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship that was part of an aid flotilla aimed at breaching Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip, also has produced an “agree, for now” moment: The United States is backing the commission that Israel has set up to investigate the incident but is withholding its full approval until the commission delivers its report.

The most immediate prospect of differences has to do with a set of enhanced Iran sanctions now under consideration in Congress. Congressional leaders had withheld the sanctions, aimed at forcing Iran to make its nuclear ambitions more transparent, in order not to complicate the administration’s efforts to get the U.N. Security Council sanctions passed.

Congress now wants to pass its unilateral sanctions. The two sets of sanctions complement one another: The U.N. sanctions are narrower, focusing principally on arms trading and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, but they also refer broadly to the rights of individual nations to target Iran’s energy and banking sectors, which is precisely what the enhanced congressional sanctions would do.

The problem is that the White House wants an exception for Russia and China, nations that trade heavily with Iran and were critical in passing the U.N. Security Council sanctions.

“The challenge has been to ensure that other countries would see the legislation as penalizing the Iranians and not them,” a senior White House official told JTA.

Not so fast, say congressional leaders, backed by the mainstream pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

“The president wants, as any president wants, flexibility in this legislation, and I understand why they want that,” Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md..) told a luncheon hosted by the Orthodox Union for U.S. senators last week. “But this is a situation and this is an issue where we are not going to give them them all the waivers they want.”

The congressional package is due to pass by the end of the month — about the time that Netanyahu is due in Washington for a summit with Obama to discuss Iran strategies and to assess progress on proximity talks with the Palestinians.

In their meeting last week, Obama pressed Abbas on moving forward to direct talks.

“We believe that with Israelis and the Palestinian Authority coming together, making clear that a peaceful, nonviolent solution that recognizes both the security needs of Israel as well as the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians is the right way to go, can yield real progress in the coming months,” Obama said after the meeting.

U.S. Jewish leaders who met with the Palestinian leader at a private dinner hosted by the Center for Middle East Peace made the same case.

Abbas’ reply was that he wants to see movement on core issues before advancing to direct talks. He didn’t elaborate, but when it comes to negotiating core issues, the Palestinians traditionally have sought the cover of major powers to address the power imbalance they see between Israel and themselves.

The core issues could prove problematic to the U.S.-Israel relationship, at least if they emerge during the period when Obama and Netanyahu are in office. Netanyahu is not committed to the “1967 lines, with adjustments” borders his predecessors had offered, and is opposed to sharing Jerusalem with the Palestinians.

The Jewish leaders also pressed Abbas on the issue of incitement. In his news conference Abbas denied that incitement was an issue, but with the Jewish leaders he acknowledged that he could do more. Abbas said he recognized ancient Jewish claims to the land, but he expressed frustration that his advances against incitement have gone without Israeli or Jewish recognition.

“I unified all the sermons in the West Bank – it is the first time, it is the first country around the Arab world, around the Islamic world, that these sermons are unified, only in the West Bank because I don’t want any incitement against anybody,” he said, according to notes provided by Center for Middle East Peace.

Some participants, who included top Jewish organizational leaders, former senior government officials and local leaders, said they were pleased by Abbas’ grace, but noted also that he and others in the PA leadership in the last year had praised terrorists.

“I suggested to him that you can’t have it both ways,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nei Tzedek in suburban Maryland. “I said that I hope he would speak to his people and tell them that they will not be able to get everything they want, and that all sides will have to make sacrifices.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of J Street, the pro-Israel group that lobbies for U.S. pressure to achieve a two-state solution, said he was frustrated by the dinner’s emphasis on extremism.

“We have a man ready to make peace, and we raised [the issue of incitement-filled Palestinian] television shows and said for that reason he is not a partner,” Ben-Ami complained.

The Obama administration also wants prompt results from Israel’s investigation into the flotilla incident, although it has resisted pressure for now to push for an investigation under U.N. auspices.

“While Israel should be afforded the time to complete its process, we expect Israel’s commission and military investigation will be carried out promptly,” a White House statement said. “We also expect that, upon completion, its findings will be presented publicly and will be presented to the international community. “

If the statement sounded a note of skepticism, it may be because Israel already is under fire for appointing as head of the commission Yaakov Turkel, a former Israeli Supreme Court justice who prior to his appointment told a radio reporter that a commission was not necessary and would be a sop to international pressure.

Another member, David Trimble, a Nobel Peace laureate for his work in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, recently helped establish a pro-Israel group.

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