A Very Public Spat

Written in June 2010

After his recent healthcare reform victory, Barack Obama has shown he is prepared to tackle difficult issues.

But with Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu refusing to stop the Judaisation of East Jerusalem – the intended capital of a Palestinian state – does the US President still have the energy and support to challenge Israeli Realpolitik?

Netanyahu’s shaky right-wing coalition and electorate sees the Holy City as indivisible and is under pressure to push-on with Israel’s expansionist project, creating new “facts on the ground”.

Not that he needs convincing to do so, but he must balance his domestic plans with a changing US foreign policy that does not offer the unquestioning support once enjoyed under previous US Presidents.

Last week the prime minister told a Washington conference that 250,000 settlers in East Jerusalem “will be part of Israel in any peace settlement”.

That doesn’t leave much room for negotiation.

While recognising Palestinians live there, “we don’t want to govern them. We don’t want to rule them. We want them as neighbours,” he said.

Jordanians and Syrians fit that description and so would the Palestinians in East Jerusalem if they moved to the other side of the separation wall.

The Israeli administration could then ask how a Palestinian-free Jerusalem can realistically be the capital of a Palestinian state.

Palestinians say they will accept nothing less.

After Washington’s call for a freeze on settlements, as outlined in the road-map, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to rejoin peace-talks.

But Israel’s untimely announcement – of plans to build 1600 new homes in the Ramat Shlomo settlement in East Jerusalem during US Vice-President Joe Biden’s recent visit – has scuppered the talks and angered Obama leading to the current stand-off.

Even so, Israel appears to be forging ahead with further settlement projects albeit more quietly.

In a gesture to ease tensions, Netanyahu has reportedly offered to remove roadblocks and soldiers from the West Bank, but this does not address the settlement issue in question.

What cards can the President play to force an Israeli volte-face?

Given the US government’s annual billion dollar gift to Israel, favourable voting at the UN and access to its hi-tech military equipment, intelligence and preferential trade agreements, he has a few.

But it would be a bold move for Obama to use these privileges as levers to force Israel to share Jerusalem.

While the exact fallout is difficult to predict, he would almost certainly face another intense campaign led by pro-Israeli lobbyists, the right-wing media and their supporters.

All have powerful voices in America.

Washington continues to assure its ally their bond is unbreakable while maintaining the settlements must stop.

Meanwhile top Israeli officials have rallied round the embattled prime minister who said recently that building in Jerusalem is like building in Tel-Aviv – Israel’s former capital.

The question is, as they face up to each other; who will blink first?

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