Prospects of indirect talks grim as U.S.-Israeli crisis deepens

10:04, March 17, 2010      

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by David Harris, Yuan Zhenyu

United States special envoy George Mitchell was slated to arrive in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening to broker the Israeli-Palestinian indirect talks, but the visit was temporarily postponed, apparently in view of the simmering tension between the U.S. and Israel over the latter's construction plan in East Jerusalem.

Despite repeated request from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration that Israel cancel the 1,600 housing units plan, which embarrassed Obama's peace efforts and triggered the diplomatic "crisis", Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a strong indication on Monday that he would not halt building activity in the Jewish neighborhoods of east Jerusalem.

A week ago, hopes were high that Palestinian-Israeli peace talks were about to resume. Just seven days later, with the mediator on hold, there are no talks on the horizon.

AMERICAN STIPULATIONS

The Israelis were hoping the latest spat would fizzle out quickly. It began during last week's visit to the region by U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. In Jerusalem to give his blessing to the commencement of indirect Palestinian-Israeli talks, Biden was publicly humiliated when a mid-ranking Israeli planning committee gave its approval to a 1,600 housing unit development in a Jewish neighborhood in the east of the city.

Israel's move cast grave doubt on the newly resumed peace process. Enraged by Israel's move, Palestinians have vowed not to enter any talks before the building plan is shelved.

The Israelis explained away the announcement of the housing approval as a case of unfortunate timing, something that Biden seemed to accept when he spoke on Thursday at Tel Aviv University.

However, since then, the world has seen U.S. officials line up to bombard Israel with harsh criticism. As Israeli ambassador to Washington puts it, the Israeli-U.S. ties have plummeted to the lowest level in 35 years.

U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has been on a highly public offensive insisting Israel make up for the housing incident.

The Americans are understood to have laid down three demands: that the housing project be totally scrapped, that Israel make immediate goodwill gestures to the Palestinians and that when the indirect talks begin they focus on the core issues of the conflict rather than being talks about talks, as Israel would like them to be.

Although the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv on Tuesday gave " logistical reasons" for the delay of Mitchell's tour, analysts and media widely believe that he postponed the visit waiting for Israel's response to those demands from the Obama administration.

Captured by Israel during the Six Day War in 1967, east Jerusalem is defined by the international community as occupied territory. The Palestinians has long seen the area as the capital of their future state.

The Israelis, on the other hand, view Jerusalem as their indivisible capital.

ISRAELI DEFIANCE

Thus far Netanyahu has not made any statement in public directly addressing the three demands.

Local reports suggest that later this week Israel may release some Palestinian prisoners as a goodwill gesture, but on the housing issue the Israeli government appears to be ready to defy Washington.

Politically, Netanyahu cannot live or survive with the three conditions laid down by the Americans, said Shmuel Sandler, a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies near Tel Aviv said on Tuesday. It is the Jerusalem demand that is problematic.

Netanyahu addressed the topic of construction in Jerusalem indirectly when he spoke in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, on Monday, alongside visiting Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"In the past 40 years, there was no government that limited construction in any Jerusalem area or neighborhood," said Netanyahu listing the Jewish suburbs built in eastern Jerusalem since the 1967 War.

"Building Jewish neighborhoods did not hurt Jerusalem's Arab residents and was not at their expense. Today nearly half of Jerusalem's Jewish population lives in these neighborhoods," the premier added.

His only other comment on the topic was to tell his Brazilian guest that there is wall-to-wall support among Jewish lawmakers for these districts to remain in Israeli hands following any final- status arrangement with the Palestinians.

What Netanyahu did not say in his speech was addressed in the house by Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the politician responsible for the planning committee that approved the construction scheme.

While Yishai continued to insist this was merely a case of poor timing, he also stressed "there will be no building freeze."

"The Americans have taken the tone too high. Jerusalem is not Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), it's not some distant settlement. Here you're talking about the core," Sandler said.

Source: Xinhua
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