New York // Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Washington did little to address Israel’s growing international isolation over its policies in the occupied territories, and comes at a time when Washington’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby group has seen its influence wane.
Speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) the Israeli prime minister demanded Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas “recognise the Jewish state... ... you would be telling the Palestinians to abandon the fantasy of flooding Israel with refugees”.
His comments were immediately condemned by Palestinian officials. Fatah central committee member Nabil Shaath said Mr Netanyahu’s demands were “an official announcement of a unilateral end to negotiations”.
Mr Netanyahu’s visit comes as Israel refuses to halt the settlement expansion that led to unprecedented tensions with its European Union allies and a growing international boycott campaign.
A recent Amnesty International report found that the Israeli military may be guilty of war crimes for the killing of Palestinians in the West Bank.
In an interview before the Aipac conference, US president Barack Obama issued a stark warning:
“If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited,” Mr Obama said in a Bloomberg View interview.
Mr Obama pressed Mr Netanyahu before a White House meeting on Monday to make the “tough decisions” needed to salvage talks with the Palestinian Authority and achieve a two-state solution.
But as the April deadline for the US-brokered talks looms, the negotiations are faltering over Israel’s continuing settlement construction in the West Bank.
An Israeli government report issued on Monday showed that settlement construction has more than doubled in 2013.
“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t,” Mr Netanyahu said. “The Israeli people expect me to stand strong against criticism and pressure.”
Another issue is the current negotiations between world powers and Iran over its nuclear programme.
The two leaders continued to disagree, with the White House holding firm to its position that there must be no new sanctions as the talks are underway.
Aipac, which over the course of its 63-year history has usually been able to garner unanimous support for resolutions it supports, has fallen short of securing enough signatures in the Senate to move forward a new bill on sanctions.
In the face of this rare defeat, the group has for now publicly endorsed the White House policy, fearing it cannot afford a deeper rift with the administration, Aipac lobbyists have reportedly said.
The scrapping of new sanctions is only the latest in a recent string of setbacks for Aipac that point to a relative waning of influence in Washington.
Its effort to push legislation that threatened the expulsion of the Palestinian Authority from Washington after its 2012 upgrading to non-member observer status at the UN failed.
And despite an intense lobbying campaign in support of Mr Obama’s request for war authorisation from Congress to strike Syria over its use of chemical weapons, lawmakers overwhelmingly opposed the plan.
Its failures on Capitol Hill coincide with a deep scepticism in US public opinion towards new American military engagements in the Middle East.
Jewish American opinion is also shifting away from Aipac and Mr Netanyahu’s government, with a Pew poll last fall finding that only 17 per cent of US Jews believed more settlements are in Israel’s security interests.
But even with these setbacks, Aipac remains hugely influential, and this year’s conference, which ended yesterday with Mr Netanyahu’s speech, had a record attendance of 14,000, including more than two-thirds of Congress, according to a release from the group.