WASHINGTON – Beginning as a spat over a single housing project, a dispute last week between the Obama administration and Israel has ballooned into the biggest U.S.-Israeli clash in 20 years, adding to months of strain between Washington and one of its closest allies.
Israel’s decision to move ahead with 1,600 new housing units in Arab East Jerusalem, announced in the midst of a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, drew criticism from Washington in language rarely directed at even Iran or North Korea.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Israel’s announcement of the project “was an insult to the United States.”
In a 45-minute telephone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Clinton upbraided the prime minister Friday and demanded that he take more steps to show its commitment to peace.
The Israeli government, stunned and perplexed by the American assault, tried to regroup this weekend. Netanyahu convened seven members of his Cabinet on Saturday to consider their response.
Underlying the diplomatic fracture are complicated political calculations on the part of both governments. Clinton’s criticism, authorized by President Barack Obama, was aimed at trying to obtain specific concessions from the conservative Israeli government at a moment when Netanyahu may be politically vulnerable, officials said.
The U.S. goal is to win Israeli agreement to back off the current housing project and to forgo announcements of additional Jewish construction in East Jerusalem, officials said. The administration also wants Israel to agree to discuss substantive issues in new peace talks that could begin in coming days, U.S. officials said.
U.S. officials hope that the Israeli concessions might enlist support for the talks from the Palestinians and Arab states, which have been wavering since the Israeli announcement on Tuesday inflamed Arab opinion.
But the Netanyahu government believes it has solid public support within Israel for building new housing in Jerusalem, which Israelis as well as Palestinians consider God-given soil.
On Saturday, Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat reiterated that Palestinians would not take part in the new talks unless the Israelis abandon the project in the Ramat Schlomo neighborhood.
Experts questioned whether the blowup would have a long-term effect on U.S.-Israeli ties.
Daniel Levy, a former Mideast peace negotiator, said the administration is trying to “lay down a marker with (Netanyahu) that they will not allow him to make them look weak.”
The administration is “bleeding credibility with the Arab world” because Arabs believe Netanyahu is being “handled with kid gloves,” he said.
The Obama administration, facing midterm elections later this year, cannot afford to alienate Jewish Americans who support Israel. Israel’s advocates in the U.S. called Clinton’s words Friday “a gross overreaction.”
Israelis were perplexed by the U.S. criticism because Biden on Thursday expressed satisfaction with the Israeli government’s response to the flap and pronounced his visit a success. Clinton’s criticism came after that.
U.S. officials explained the difference between the reactions from Biden and Clinton by saying the administration wanted Biden to send a friendly message to the Israeli public, while Clinton must demand more of the Israeli government.