Relations between the US and Israel are at crisis point right now. At the heart of that crisis, the announcement during Vice President Biden’s visit to Israel of plans to build new Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Glenn Kessler, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post.
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MARCO WERMAN: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Israel has no more important ally that the United States. But now, Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. has reportedly told Israeli diplomats that relations between the two countries are facing a crisis of historic proportions. The crux of the matter is a project to build new Jewish homes in occupied East Jerusalem. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Approval of the construction was announced during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel last week. Glenn Kessler is Diplomatic Correspondent for the Washington Post. What is Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren so concerned about Glenn?
GLENN KESSLER: What you had last week was this extraordinary situation where the Vice President was making a good will visit in Israel. It was intended to solidify the relationship between the Obama administration and Israel, which had been a bit rocky, but he was going to make amends. And you had this announcement of the additional housing made while he was there. And he, in rather strong terms, condemned it, actually used that word which is generally a diplomatic phrase used when you are talking about one of your enemies, not one of your closest allies. And then Secretary of State Clinton followed up with a phone call lasting almost 45 minutes in which she really rebuked the Prime Minister, he being Netanyahu for the incident and made a series of demands, of things that Israel must do in order to make things right.
WERMAN: What is Secretary of State Clinton asking for?
KESSLER: Well officially the U.S. Government has not said exactly what she is asking for. It is in the Israeli press that it’s a series of things including reversing the decision to build those additional houses, and also releasing hundred of Palestinian prisoners, making clear that when peace talks commence with the Palestinians they would cover all the issues the Palestinians want to discuss. If this is indeed the case, that this is what Secretary Clinton demanded of B.B. Netanyahu, it’s a pretty tall order and it would be difficult to see how he could fulfill those requests without bringing down his own government.
WERMAN: When so much is at stake in the Middle East, does the U.S. reaction to the announcement of the settlement construction accurately gauge what is at stake?
KESSLER: Well there has been some puzzlement among analysts as to what exactly is the administration hoping to achieve here? Because they ran into trouble last year when they made demands of Netanyahu, that he freeze all settlement construction, and when he didn’t, they lost some credibility in the region. So now they’re in another tense situation with Israel just as they were going to begin indirect talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis and its unclear what their game plan is going forward if Netanyahu sticks to his current course and does not abide by any of these requests that have reportedly been made.
WERMAN: Is Israeli public opinion behind Prime Minister Netanyahu?
KESSLER: In Israel, building in East Jerusalem is not controversial for the general public. They view that part of East Jerusalem where these homes were going to be built as the equivalent of building in Tel Aviv because Israel annexed it years and years ago. What is controversial is doing things that affect the relationship with the United States. And that Netanyahu is facing a lot of criticism.
WERMAN: There seem to be some critics in the United States who believe Washington should have been much tougher, should be much tougher than they have been with Israel since the settlement announcement. How bad could this tension get?
KESSLER: Well that’s a good question because it’s politically difficult, just as it is for an Israeli Prime Minister to get too separated from an American President. It’s also politically difficult for an American President to come on too tough on Israel. The last President really to take such a stand was George Herbert Walker Bush and he faced quite a backlash for that. Already you see some of the pro-Israel groups being highly critical of the administration. And it will be very interesting to see if the administration feels that it can continue its tough approach against the Prime Minister, of if they begin to back off.
WERMAN: For sure we’ll be watching that indeed. Glenn Kessler, Diplomatic Correspondent for the Washington Post, thank you very much.
KESSLER: You’re welcome.
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