Members of America's most powerful pro-Israeli lobby group listened in stony silence yesterday as the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton told them that the situation in the Middle East was unsustainable, that Israel had to make tough choices and that it needed a new path.
Mrs Clinton was addressing the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) in Washington at a time when relations between the US and Israel are at an historic low over plans for 1,600 illegal new homes in East Jerusalem. The secretary of state said that "as a friend" it is the United States's responsibility to "tell the truth when it's needed". She said the settlements highlighted a gap in the otherwise close relationship between the two countries.
Mrs Clinton said the US commitment to Israel's future and security was "rock solid", but she added: "New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides want and need. It exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region could hope to exploit."
She said the status quo is "unsustainable for all sides", but a new path may involve "difficult but necessary choices" for Israel. She singled out settlements as an obstacle for any peace negotiations. "Our credibility in this process depends in part on our willingness to praise both sides when they are courageous, and when we don't agree, to say so, and say so unequivocally," she said. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was due to address an Aipac dinner last night. In his speech at a banquet attended by more than half of the US Congress, Mr Netanyahu was expected to give a clearer picture of whether he intends to halt plans to build the 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem. He indicated this week that he does not plan to, reiterating his stance that all of Jerusalem is Israeli territory, saying "construction in Jerusalem is like construction in Tel Aviv".
The announcement of the new settlement project during a visit to Israel this month by Joe Biden, the US vice president, derailed the proximity peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that Mr Biden was there to promote, and provoked anger from the US and international community. However, Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from right-wing elements in his coalition government to press forward with plans.
"If he makes real concessions on the settlement issue, then he will be in trouble with his coalition; if not, it's going to be a very difficult visit to the US," said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House, an international think tank in London. "How do you square this? At the end of the day it's crunch time." Mr Mekelberg said Mrs Clinton had also been "walking a tightrope" over the past two weeks, but had managed to strike a balance in her speech.
"This isn't the end to a historic alliance," Mr Mekelberg said. "But it is a major strain and a genuine disagreement. She's painted it as an argument within a family and this is the right message." Mrs Clinton said that during her discussions with Mr Netanyahu she had demanded a number of "concrete steps" to which he had responded with "specific actions". The Israeli prime minister met Mrs Clinton privately after her speech, and is scheduled to meet the president, Barack Obama, today.
Addressing Iran in her speech yesterday, Mrs Clinton said the administration is pushing for "sanctions that will bite" because a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. For Israel, an Iran with nuclear weapons is its most pressing security concern. "It is unacceptable to the United States. It is unacceptable to Israel. It is unacceptable to the region and the international community," she said, sparking enthusiastic approval from the audience. "We will not compromise our commitment."
She said that although it is "taking time" to foster wide-based support for harsher measures against Iran - parts of whose government she described as a menace - it would be worth it. email@example.com