Thursday, April 9, 2009

US-Israel confrontation looms over Mideast peace

April 8, 2009

JERUSALEM (AFP) — A week after a largely right-wing Israeli government took power, differences are emerging with main ally Washington over Middle East peace efforts that could develop into an all-out confrontation.

The naming of firebrand ultra-nationalist Avigdor Lieberman as Israel's foreign minister has itself caused unease but the main bone of contention is the proposed creation of a Palestinian state.

The concept of a two-state solution under which a viable Palestinian state would exist in peace alongside a secure Israel is central to US President Barack Obama's Middle East policy.

But it is unpopular in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

For the time being, both sides are careful to maintain a diplomatic tone.

"There are differences, but no frictions," the deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, who is a member of Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party, told public radio on Wednesday.

A former ambassador in Washington, Ayalon said the US administration must understand that Israel's new government needs time to re-evaluate policies, especially as "negotiations with the Palestinians have led nowhere over 15 years."

Political analyst Eytan Gilboa of Bar Ilan University said that despite the differences between Israel and the United States over the peace process with the Palestinians, "it is unlikely there will be pressure from Washington."

"Neither side is seeking conflict," he said, adding however: "It is possible that some Obama advisors will want to polish the US image in the Arab world at the expense of Israel."
The Haaretz daily is far more pessimistic.

"The Obama administration is expecting a clash with Netanyahu over his refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel," the newspaper said.

"The question is whether Washington would use a velvet glove or an iron fist," Akiva Eldar, one of the paper's editorialists, told AFP.

Netanyahu, he said, "will seek to gain time by stressing that Israel has no credible negotiation partner on the Palestinian side as president Mahmud Abbas is too weak and Hamas which controls Gaza refuses the principle of peace."

On Monday, Obama renewed US support for a two-state solution.

"I believe that peace in the Middle East is possible. I think it will be based on two states side by side," he said during a visit to Turkey. "In order to achieve that, both sides are going to have to make compromises.

"Now what we need is the political will and courage on the part of leadership."

The next day, Lieberman told foreign powers to stay out of Israeli politics, saying they had no business holding up a stopwatch and telling Israel "when it must produce a responsible political programme."

In remarks after taking office last week, Lieberman said Israel was not bound to conduct final settlement negotiations with the Palestinians as agreed at a 2007 conference in Annapolis, near Washington.

The two sides agreed to relaunch the talks on core issues such as the future status of Jerusalem and the borders of a proposed Palestinian state, while also implementing the other phases of the roadmap.

The talks produced little visible progress before being put on the back-burner during Israel's controversial war in Gaza in December-January.

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