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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 02:22 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 02:22 | SYDNEY

US-Israel: Constructive talks?

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28 July 2009 10:01

The construction business has never been one for the faint-hearted, but when it comes to Israeli settlements there is much more than money riding on the result. At the moment they are central not just to the outcome, but to the commencement of the Obama Administration's Middle East peace initiative.

The Obama administration's opening assertion that absolutely no settlement growth would be allowed has drawn a line in the sand and by doing so announced to the Netanyahu government that the mood in Washington on this issue is markedly different from previous Administrations of both persuasions.

Netanyahu for his part understands that the new Obama administration will not settle for Israeli dismantlement of some illegal settler 'outposts' as had happened in the past.

But the Israeli Prime Minister knows that to acquiesce to US demands without gaining something concrete in return will make it virtually impossible for his coalition to survive, and he appears to be adopting a policy of multiple settlement growth 'spot fire' issues to make the Obama Administration's call for an absolute freeze practically impossible.

If sufficient settlement constructions can be contemplated, initiated or even continued, then backing down on some of them will still give the appearance of acquiescence while also allowing sufficient settlement 'activity' to satisfy his domestic constituents.

To do this he has sought to press on Arab East Jerusalem as a test case, even though the influence campaign to support the move drew criticism from the overseas audience it sought to address. That the Israeli ambassador to Washington was called in to explain the housing development is testimony to the sensitivity of the issue in the US. 

The presence of three Administration heavyweights in Israel this week, Messrs Mitchell, Gates and Holbrooke (ostensibly for three separate issues) also points to the seriousness with which the US is seeking to engage Israel on the issue.

Both countries have too close a relationship and too much to lose to allow this issue to cause irreparable damage between the two, but they are both employing diplomatic brinksmanship over an issue on which Obama has staked his reputation and Netanyahu has staked his political survival.

George Mitchell's visit to Israel this week will not be likely to resolve anything and will merely continue his shuttle diplomacy to try to ensure that the peace talks do not stop before they start. Mitchell is a very well regarded negotiator, and this article from the liberal Israeli Haaretz newspaper provides a good insight into his thinking on the settlement issue eight years ago.

This time around though, he is not merely reporting on it, he is trying to resolve it. The difficulty of this 'preliminary' issue will have confirmed the enormity of the task that lies ahead. 

Photo by Flickr user Barack Obama, used under a Creative Commons license.

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