Monday, May 11, 2009

Israel no longer getting special diplomatic treatment from the US?

Such is the view expressed in this recent piece in Haaretz, which highlights a supposed breakdown in diplomatic cooperation between the US and Israel, at least compared to the almost sycophantic cooperation the Bush administration offered. It's obvious that there's a tremendous amount riding on the upcoming meeting between Obama and Netanyahu. A major point of contention will be the West Bank settlements, which Netanyahu has long championed and in one of which the new Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, resides. Haaretz says that Obama's people have told Israeli reps that Obama will demand that Netanyahu halt settlement construction. I'll be curious to see whether that includes the demolition of Arab houses in East Jerusalem, where there's a project now in progress to build a "historical park" that will celebrate Jerusalem as Israel's historical, "eternal" capital - and in the process undercut future negotiations on Jerusalem's status. The Palestinian Arabs have long insisted that a portion of East Jerusalem be reserved to them as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The Likud party traditionally has rejected any such possibility.

I'm equally curious as to what Obama and Netanyahu will discuss with regard to Iran. The buzz has been that Netanyahu might agree to go along with Obama on the two-state solution if Obama agrees to ratchet up the pressure on Iran - and the report yesterday was that Dennis Ross, Obama/Clinton's special envoy on the Iranian situation, is saying that Iran has until October to make some deal on backing off its nuclear enrichment program.

Meanwhil, we learn today that an Iranian court has suspended the sentence of the Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who will be released from prison (and presumably allowed to return to the US). Good news, but don't chalk this up to humanitarianism on Iran's part. Releasing her is a nice reach-out to Obama on the eve of Netanyahu's arrival.

Jerusalem worried over breakdown of U.S.-Israel cooperation under Obama

Senior officials in Jerusalem expressed concern recently over the sharp decline in the coordination between Israel and the United States on security and state affairs since President Barack Obama's entered the White House and especially since the formation of Israel's new government.

Senior White House officials told their Israeli counterparts that Obama will demand Netanyahu completely suspend construction in the settlements, the officials said.

"Obama's people brief their Israeli counterparts in advance much less about security and Middle East policy activities than the Bush administration used to," the officials said.

In addition, when they do brief Israeli officials, they don't consult with them or coordinate their statements in advance.

This has caused several coordination "malfunctions" between the two states in the past two months, they said.

The last incident was the statement of Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, calling on Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The statement had not been coordinated with Israeli officials in charge of the nuclear issue and they heard it first from the media.

This followed other equally problematic incidents. The American policy shift toward Syria and opening direct talks with Damascus followed minimal coordination with Israel. For example, Israel was not briefed about senior American diplomats' trip to Damascus, which the U.S. had initiated.

Another incident concerned U.S. envoy for Iranian affairs Dennis Ross' trip to the Gulf states a few days ago for talks on Iran. Israel was briefed on the trip in general details, but no consultations or message-coordination took place before the trip. In addition, Ross did not pass through Israel on his way to the Gulf or back to brief Israel on the talks' outcome.

The American policy toward Iran has remained generally ambiguous as far as Israel is concerned and the administration has not outlined to Israel its plan for a dialogue with Iran in an orderly way. Many of the details Israel learned about this plan were obtained via European channels.

The Israeli officials said the problem also stems from the government change in both states and because clear work procedures between the sides have not been set established.

"This will be one of the most important things Netanyahu will have to settle with Obama," a senior official said.

However, the official said the new administration no longer seems to see Israel as a "special" or "extraordinary" state in the Middle East, with which the U.S. must maintain a different dialogue than with other states.

"The feeling is that the dialogue and coordination with the Arab states and with Europe is today no less important to the U.S. and perhaps more so than with Israel," the official said.

Uzi Arad, the official in the Prime Minister's Office in charge of the liaison with the American administration, maintains ties with various American officials but has not yet forged a direct channel to his counterpart, National Security Advisor General James L. Jones.

Arad is scheduled to go to Washington next week to prepare for Netanyahu's trip.

Arad will outline the first chapters of Israel's new foreign policy, with an emphasis on the Palestinian and Iranian issues, at his meeting with Jones next Tuesday in Washington ahead of Obama's meeting with Netanyahu May 18.

The Americans are expected to tell Arad what Obama expects of his meeting with Netanyahu and coordinate the meeting's agenda, issues and the two men's statements in the news conference after the meeting.

The Americans are also expected to brief Arad on the talks between American and Syrian officials in Damascus on Thursday.

During the Olmert government, Israeli officials kept very close ties with their counterparts in the American administration. This included advanced briefings about almost every American move. The Israelis were even briefed about former president George W. Bush's speeches or former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's foreign policy statements.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert used to have regular conversations with Bush while former foreign minister Tzipi Livni kept in touch with Rice. Olmert's chief of staff Yoram Turbowicz and political advisor Shalom Turgeman coordinated foreign policy activities with National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley and his deputy Elliot Abrams.

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