Jeffrey Heller
Arab News
June 3, 2009 - 12:00am§ion=0&article=123196&d=3&m=6&y=2009

After George W. Bush’s terms of endearment for Israel — a country he once described as a “light unto nations” — a different terminology is being used to describe its cloudy relationship with his successor, Barack Obama.

At odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Palestinian statehood and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the new US president will try to patch ties with the Muslim world in an address he will deliver in Egypt tomorrow.

Israelis and Arabs will be listening carefully for one of Obama’s expected messages — policy Netanyahu has met with defiant words — that creation of a Palestinian state is essential for peace and settlement expansion must stop.

The US-Israeli rift after eight years of a Bush presidency that pursued statehood only late in its second term and turned a blind eye to settlement building is raising questions over whether a close alliance will deteriorate into alienation. Maariv, a popular Israeli newspaper, summed it up in a one-word, front-page headline on Tuesday: “Pressure”.

“The president doesn’t want to see even one cement mixer in the West Bank,” an Israeli political source, briefed by Netanyahu aides, quoted US Middle East envoy George Mitchell telling an Israeli delegation that met him in London last week.

Possible scenarios for twisting Netanyahu’s arm could range from US inaction at the United Nations in thwarting resolutions critical of Israel to choking off some military supplies, political sources and commentators said. “Delaying the shipment of spares for the Apaches can ground the air force,” political columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv, referring to Israel’s US-made attack helicopters.

“The replenishment of ammunition and weapons supplies in the event of another expected conflagration in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon is a matter of American goodwill,” Caspit said. Few expect Washington ever to go as far as to hurt Israel’s defenses, but it does have other diplomatic pressure points. Yet appeasing the United States by abandoning a settlement policy that allows “natural growth”, construction which Israel says is to accommodate growing settler families, could tear apart Netanyahu’s two-month-old right-leaning coalition.

“If he gives up on natural growth, it will break his coalition,” the Israeli political source said. “Netanyahu is not willing to pay the price. The outposts are all he can give,” the source said of dozens of small settlements which Israel has long pledged to remove under a 2003 US-backed “road map” to peace with the Palestinians.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, sent by Netanyahu to the United States this week to meet with government officials to try to ease friction, has promised to move against two dozen of the outposts, some only clusters of caravans on isolated hilltops. “The situation is very gloomy. They are waiting to see what Barak can achieve in Washington,” the source said.


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