US weighs options in 'reassessing' support for Israel
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A day after the White House warned that it might have to “reassess” its approach to relations with Israel, the Obama administration is quietly weighing diplomatic options vis-à-vis its closest ally in the Middle East.
In a last-minute appeal to conservative voters on the eve of Israeli elections on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to backtrack on his support for a two-state solution to the Middle East conflict. Asked by Israel’s NRG website whether it was safe to assume that a Palestinian state would never be established while he was prime minister, Netanyahu responded: “Indeed.”
Netanyahu’s statements sparked an immediate response from the White House, with press secretary Josh Earnest characterising them as “cynical, divisive, election-day tactics” and saying they indicated a policy reversal.
“He walked back from commitments that Israel had previously made to a two-state solution,” Earnest told reporters. “It is ... cause for the United States to evaluate what our path is forward.”
In a phone call congratulating Netanyahu on his election victory, US President Barack Obama said that Washington would review its relations with Israel and Middle East diplomacy more generally in light of the Israeli leader’s statements.
"The president told the prime minister that we will need to reassess our options following the prime minister's new positions and comments regarding the two-state solution," a White House official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
While it is unlikely that the United States will cut back on its financial or military support for Israel, some analysts believe that a US rethink might leave Netanyahu more vulnerable in the international arenas where the US has been a key supporter of Israel and its controversial occupation of disputed territories.
Rethinking UN support
The White House has already raised the prospect of reevaluating its diplomatic support for Israel at the United Nations, where the US has often prevented Israel from being isolated within the international community.
"Steps that the United States has taken at the United Nations had been predicated on this idea that the two-state solution is the best outcome," said Earnest.
"Now our ally in these talks has said that they are no longer committed to that solution. That means we need to reevaluate our position in this matter, and that is what we will do moving forward."
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP on Wednesday that the Palestinians will “accelerate, continue and intensify” their efforts to win diplomatic recognition, including at the UN and the International Criminal Court (ICC), which the Palestinian Authority is set to join on April 1.
Washington has helped undercut such Palestinian moves in the past. A successful 2011 Palestinian bid to be recognised as a state by the UN cultural organisation, UNESCO, saw the United States and Israel immediately withdraw funding for the agency, forcing it to suspend operations temporarily.
In December, the UN Security Council considered a draft Palestinian resolution demanding that Israel withdraw from the West Bank by 2017, a measure the US helped defeat. But Washington may now be ready to consider a shift in diplomatic strategy that would see it rethink its consistent support for Israeli interests at the world body.
“I do think the administration is going to look very closely at the possibility of either joining – or at least not blocking – an internationally backed move at the UN to restate the parameters for ending the conflict,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of the left-leaning pro-Israel J Street group in comments to Politico.
Diminished backing for settlements
Other possible diplomatic moves include the US withdrawing its opposition to EU suggestions to impose sanctions on Israel for its settlement-building activities, or threatening to review US loan guarantees to Israel unless new construction is halted.
After Israel announced plans in November to build 2,500 new homes in East Jerusalem, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki warned that the plan risked angering the international community adding that it could “distance Israel from even its closest allies”, a barely veiled reference to Washington.
Threatening to alter Israel’s US loan guarantees has been used as leverage in the past, but with limited success. Former president George H.W. Bush briefly cut loan guarantees in 1991 in a move that sparked a political outcry but had no lasting effect in halting settlement expansion.
The United States might also reconsider the longstanding use of its veto on any UN Security Council resolution condemning the Israeli settlements. In February 2011 the Obama administration used its first-ever veto on a UN resolution denouncing Israeli settlements on occupied territories as illegal, with the US standing alone among the Security Council’s 15 members to vote against the measure.
Actions at the ICC
Starting next month the Palestinian Authority’s new membership in the ICC will give it the option of filing war crimes suits against Israel. Under US law, any attempt to bring war crimes charges against Israel at the court will automatically halt a $400 million annual Palestinian aid package. But some analysts told Politico that Obama could look into finding indirect ways to continue the funding even if a suit against Israel is filed.
Following the US warnings Netanyahu appeared to backtrack, saying that his policy on seeking a two-state solution had not changed but that the timing was not yet right.
"I haven't changed my policy. I never retracted my speech in Bar-Ilan University six years ago calling for a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state," Netanyahu told MSNBC in his first US interview after winning re-election.
But Netanyahu said that circumstances have to change before a two-state solution is possible. He cited as sticking points the Palestinian Authority's refusal to recognise Israel as a “Jewish state” and its moves to form a unity government with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and is listed as a terrorist organisation by Israel as well as the United States.
Nevertheless, his comments on relations with Washington pointedly underscored what he called the “unbreakable bond between Israel and the United States”.
"America has no greater ally than Israel and Israel has no greater ally than the United States," he said.
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