US 'row' with Israel unlikely to hurt ties

Observers say Washington was upset only over the timing of the settlement decision and it will eventually compel PLO to return to talks.

JERUSALEM // For all the recent talk of an escalating row between the US and Israel, there is little sign that any fundamental rupture in US-Israeli relations is in the offing, or, indeed, that Washington is preparing to put any significant pressure on Israel to seize and desist its settlement construction plans to secure a resumption of indirect talks with the Palestinians.

Still keen to ensure that those proximity negotiations see the light of day, however, most analysts feel that Washington will instead eventually prevail on the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to yet again back down from its position of no talks as long as settlement construction continues. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was keen at the weekly Israeli cabinet meeting yesterday to present an unruffled front, urging fellow officials and the Israeli media to "calm down".

"We opened the newspapers this morning and read all kinds of commentary and assumptions regarding the crisis with the US. I recommend not to get carried away and to calm down," Mr Netanyahu said. Nevertheless, he acknowledged, in his first public remarks on the affair, that the announcement on Tuesday of plans to build a further 1,600 housing units in an East Jerusalem settlement had been a "regrettable incident" and said that the government had established a committee to establish how the decision had been announced at the time it had.

Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli analyst, called the row "significant" but said it "wouldn't serve US interests" to push much harder. "Netanyahu, or people to the right of Netanyahu, are the only real options Israelis have at the moment. Anything that weakens Netanyahu will strengthen the far right, which is presumably not what the US wants." Mr Steinberg said the United States would in any case not be able to impose its will on Israel on issues such as Jerusalem and ran instead the danger of being forced to back down in the face of Israeli rejection.

"Where there is a firm consensus about an issue like Jerusalem, Israel will simply wait out the administration." Washington will also be mindful of awakening the ire of powerful pro-Israel US lobbies before November's midterm elections. Already on Friday, the Anti-Defamation League called recent US criticism of Israel "harsh" and a "gross overreaction". Israel has apologised to the United States for the timing of the announcement, which came in the middle of an official visit by Joe Biden, the vice president. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, on Friday called the timing "insulting" to the United States and one that undermined confidence in negotiations.

She stopped short, however, of calling on Israel to reverse the decision and freeze settlement construction in occupied East Jerusalem. Nor was such a step demanded of Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, who had been summoned to the state department in Washington, also on Friday. According to the state department, Mrs Clinton told Mr Netanyahu that "she could not understand how this happened, particularly in light of the United States' strong commitment to Israel's security. 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."

The Obama adviser David Axelrod also expressed anger yesterday over the settlement announcement. "This was an affront, it was an insult, but most importantly, it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region," he said on NBC television. The PLO, however, has now conditioned beginning indirect negotiations, which were supposed to have started last week, on US guarantees that Israel will cancel plans for the 1,600 settlement units. The PLO had, only two weeks ago, reluctantly and after seeking Arab League blessing, agreed to begin proximity talks with Israel in the first place, after refusing for months to negotiate while settlement construction continued.

Israel instituted a partial settlement construction freeze, or slowdown, in November last year after the United States had urged Israel to abide by its commitments under the 2003 road map plan for peace. The road map, drafted by the Quartet of Middle East mediators, the US, Russia, the EU and the UN, calls for a full settlement construction freeze as well as the dismantling of outlying settlement road map, which have been built without the Israeli government's permission.

Israel's settlement construction slowdown fell far short of that commitment but the US not only welcomed it back in November, Mrs Clinton hailed it as a significant step forward. The onus was subsequently placed on the Palestinians to agree to return to negotiations. That is likely now to happen again. "I feel like I'm watching the movie Groundhog Day," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian analyst and a former legal adviser to the PLO. "None of this is new. If you cut through all that was said when Biden was here, you see that what the Americans are upset about is not the settlement enterprise, but the timing."

Ms Buttu said the adviser States and Israel would quickly patch their disagreements up, as they have done before, and Washington would then begin to pressure the PLO, just as before, to agree to return to negotiations. This, she said, was a pattern that had repeated itself since the first negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis in 1991. "It's not now, but the question for me is, when is the US going to do anything about settlements?"