Obama says no crisis in US-Israeli relations

19 Mar

First Published 2010-03-18

Did AIPAC have its way at the end?

US President says friends ‘disagree sometimes’ as he reiterates ‘special bond’ with Israel.

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama on Wednesday denied a crisis was rocking US-Israeli relations, as one of the worst rows in years between the allies rumbled on over new expansion of illegal Jewish settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. .

Obama’s first public comments on the showdown came as his administration awaited a response from hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Washington’s sharp complaints over the episode.

The president was asked in an interview with Fox News if there was a "crisis" in US-Israeli relations after the announcement on 1,600 new settler units in Palestinian East Jerusalem embarrassed Vice President Joe Biden during a visit to the Jewish state.

"No," Obama answered. "We and the Israeli people have a special bond that’s not going to go away.

"But friends are going to disagree sometimes… there is a disagreement in terms of how we can move this peace process forward."

Obama noted that the Israeli announcement was the work of the Interior Ministry in Israel and that Netanyahu had apologized.

And he called on both Israelis and Palestinians to "take steps to make sure that we can rebuild trust."

Obama also promised to seek "aggressive" international sanctions against Iran..

"It is one of our highest priorities to make sure that Iran doesn’t possess a nuclear weapon," Obama told Fox News Channel in an interview.

"That is why I have worked so hard to mobilize the international community successfully, to isolate Iran," he added.

Obama vowed that no options were being taken off the table, an apparent reference to last ditch military action if diplomacy failed, but vowed to keep pushing a peaceful solution to the crisis.

"It is a hard problem but it is a problem that we need to solve because if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, than you can potentially see a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East."

The New York Times meanwhile reported that the White House was considering proposing a US plan to form the basis of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations as US officials questioned the commitment of Netanyahu’s government to peace talks.

Should Obama present his own proposal, complete with territorial maps, it would likely not take place until his special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, had engaged in several months of US-brokered indirect "proximity" talks between the two sides, the Times said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meanwhile headed to Moscow, for a meeting of the international Quartet on Middle East peace talks, without holding an expected telephone call with Netanyahu.

"We’re still looking forward to a response. It hasn’t happened yet. There hasn’t been a call yet," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, told reporters after Clinton’s departure.

With nightfall in Jerusalem and Clinton flying to Moscow on her US Air Force plane, which has good phone connections, there was no sign the call would happen Wednesday despite officials’ earlier insistence otherwise.

Netanyahu did speak overnight, however, with Vice President Biden, the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem said.

A White House aide would only say that the call was part of "ongoing negotiations."

In a previous call last week, Clinton told Netanyahu that Israel’s treatment of Biden sent a "deeply negative signal," just as Washington had persuaded Palestinians to join indirect "proximity" peace talks.

She said Tuesday Washington was engaged in "very active consultation" with the Israelis over steps that would demonstrate the requisite commitment getting peace talks on again.

Earlier, the Israeli government showed no sign of backing down on the wider issue of illegal Jewish settlements, even if it welcomed US assurances that its bond with the United States was safe following the row.

Extremist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said demands for a halt to building settlements were "unreasonable."

Mitchell decided to cancel a planned trip to meet Israeli and Palestinian officials until after Clinton joins her Quartet partners Russia, the United Nations and the European Union in Moscow on Thursday.

Netanyahu is due to visit the United States next week to speak at a meeting of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby.

On Sunday AIPAC warned that recent US administration remarks about bilateral ties with Israel were "of serious concern," and urged the White House to ease tensions.

"AIPAC calls on the administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State," it said.

AIPAC also warned that "the escalated rhetoric of recent days" was distracting from "the urgent issue" of Iran’s nuclear program.

"The administration should 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," AIPAC added.

Meanwhile, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Micheal Oren, said Thursday that Israel and the United States "enjoy a deep and multi-layered friendship," but recent tension between them is "unfortunate".

"Though we may disagree with the White House at certain stages of the peace process, we must never allow such differences to obscure the purpose we share or to raise doubts about the unbreakable bonds between us," he wrote.



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