Analysis: Israel left reeling from US-British attacks

● Israeli PM faces choice between his coalition and international support

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 25, 2010
Israeli PM Netanyahu in Washington this week, dealing with crises in relations with the US and the UK

Israeli PM Netanyahu in Washington this week, dealing with crises in relations with the US and the UK

The day after David Miliband announced that an Israeli diplomat would be expelled from Britain, British Ambassador Tom Phillips made the rounds in Jerusalem trying to promise that the ties between the two countries, especially those regarding intelligence, would remain strong.

The same could be heard from Israeli sources: this was regrettable, but the British did what they had to. It could have been worse.

That is true. The Foreign Office has not named and shamed the Mossad representative in London, who is being given time to leave in an orderly fashion, after Pesach.

The Mossad station in London will not close down, and in a few weeks, a new station chief will arrive and quietly receive diplomatic credentials.

Both sides will continue exchanging crucial information and the relationship between the spy services will not be greatly harmed.

That does not change the fact that on a more immediate level, "we feel as if we are reeling from a slap", one diplomat in Jerusalem put it.

The official statements in London referred only to the technical foul of misuse of British passports.

But many in the Israeli government feel that Gordon Brown's government, while generally regarded as friendly, is participating in a diplomatic free-for-all against Binyamin Netanyahu and his cabinet.

In the past, such a drastic step would have been balanced by a reassuring phone call between the prime ministers' offices, or between the foreign ministers.

But Avigdor Lieberman's office is not expecting a call this week and Mr Netanyahu is dealing with another - and from an Israeli point of view, much more serious - crisis in Washington.

The frosty reception which greeted him at the White House on Tuesday when President Barack Obama, for the second time, did not allow a joint photograph or statement to be issued, is a stark illustration of the depths in which Israel's most crucial foreign relationship is now languishing.

The Americans continue to demand a clear commitment from Israel on freezing building projects in east Jerusalem. In the dispute surrounding the agenda for the new peace talks, they are much closer to the Palestinian position.

After two consecutive Oval Office meetings with the president ended without agreement, Mr Netanyahu holed up in the Israeli Embassy, sending his senior aides to try and salvage something of the disastrous visit.

His strategy of relying on the support of Israel's allies in Congress seems to have been mistimed.

In a week when President Obama succeeded in passing his controversial health insurance reform, he certainly was not going to be browbeaten over foreign policy.

This week's twin debacles in Washington and London are a dispiriting summary of his first year in power. Former ambassador Netanyahu knows better than anyone that Israel's diplomatic relations - with a foreign minister who is a virtual persona non grata in most of the capitals in the West and simultaneous crises with two of its closest allies - have seldom been so poor.

Finally the message is beginning to sink in: the rules of the game have changed. Barack Obama may be suspect but the same lines are being conveyed by other senior members of the administration who were always known to be friendly to Israel, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And it is now coming loud and clear from Messrs Brown and Miliband.

At the Aipac conference on Monday, Mr Netanyahu defiantly spoke of Israel's resolve to continue building in Jerusalem.

But he now knows for certain that he has to choose between his right-wing coalition and friendly relations with America and Britain. Many of his current partners in government will never agree to even a temporary freeze on building in Jerusalem. It now seems that Washington and Europe will settle for no less.

He can remain defiant, or bite the bullet and begin coalition talks with Kadima. Returning back home on the weekend, Mr Netanyahu now has to reach a decision. He will take some time out for a short Pesach break but it will not be a happy holiday for him.

Last updated: 2:23pm, March 25 2010