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Looking for small victories in the Mideast

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TEL AVIV -- Thomas Friedman's column in Sunday's New York Times may give us the clue to America's over-reaction to Israel's blunder in its building policy in East Jerusalem.

In his column, Friedman wrote that during his visit to Jerusalem last week, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden told his Israeli interlocutors: "What you are doing here undermines the security of our troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and endangers regional peace".

Well-placed Israeli sources revealed that a similar message was conveyed recently to Israeli chief of general staff, Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, by the chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. Mullen recently told Ashkenazi he met in January with a group of senior officers who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They told him various Arab leaders perceive America as a "weak" country that is losing its influence in the region. The Arab leaders cited "America's inability to stand up to Israel."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thought this was a sheer "Arab manipulation." Nevertheless, Netanyahu went the extra mile and facilitated the mission of George Mitchell, U.S. President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, by accepting conditions never before accepted by a prime minister. In addition to the 10-month moratorium on settlement-building in the West Bank, Netanyahu agreed to freeze building in East Jerusalem. Despite Arab intransigence, he also agreed to talks with the Palestinians, under Mitchell's auspices.

This was a regression, not progress. Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel and the Palestinians have negotiated face-to-face without foreign intermediaries. This had changed since Netanyahu became the prime minister in March 2009. Being unable to reconcile his differences with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas preferred to discredit Netanyahu, expressing public mistrust in Netanyahu's commitment to peace.

Thus, the unfortunate announcement of future plans to construct additional housing units in the existing ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Ramot Shlomo, in East Jerusalem, played well into Abbas' hands and he exploited it.

More hurtful and regrettable was the fact the announcement came during Biden's "friendship trip" to Israel. What was meant to be a demonstration of American-Israeli friendship turned into the most serious diplomatic crisis between the two countries in 35 years.

While in Israel, Biden was convinced the ill-timed announcement was not meant to be implemented for at least four to five years. Netanyahu assured Biden Israel would not undermine American efforts to revive the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Hence, Biden publicly expressed hope for flourishing ties between the U.S. and Israel.

Washington, however, would not let go. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Obama's top aide, David Axelrod, saw in the Israeli blunder an opportunity to show the Arab world "Obama can stand up to Israel." Clinton and Axelrod used the weekend's talk shows to slam Israel publicly.

The U.S. now wants Netanyahu to announce the permanent cancellation of the new housing project in Ramot Shlomo, the release of Palestinian prisoners as a "gesture" to Mahmoud Abbas and that he agrees when Mitchell resumes his mission, later this week, he could raise all core issues, like borders, refugees and Jerusalem.

This is a major change in the negotiating process. Before agreeing to the resumption of the negotiations, Israel and the Palestinians agreed the core issues be dealt with in face-to-face negotiations. Mitchell's "shuttle diplomacy" should be limited to procedures and confidence-building measures.

Thus, some Israeli observers believe the U.S. wants Israel to hand Obama "one small" diplomatic victory after a chain of defeats, the latest defeat in Iraq. Despite seven years of American presence, the U.S. had failed in its efforts to have the coalition of Iyad Allaoui win the elections and it appears Nuri al-Maliki is likely to head again the coalition in Baghdad.

For Israel, it will be interesting to see how far Netanyahu can go in yielding to American pressures, without risking the stability of his own government.

Sam Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 16, 2010 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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