Analysis: Still deep divisions between US-Israel

By Nathan Guttman, March 25, 2010
Hillary Clinton at the Aipac Conference in Washington

Hillary Clinton at the Aipac Conference in Washington

The annual policy conference held this week by Aipac, the Israel lobby, certainly helped tone down the rhetoric between Israel and the US.

However, it also highlighted the deep divisions that still remain between the two countries, which no amount of sweet talk will be able to paper over.

The conference brought together 7,500 delegates from across America. As always, it was the top event in town, with the A-list of Washington politicians gathering to express their support for Israel.

But this year, the parley was overshadowed by the fallout of Israel's decision to build a housing project in east Jerusalem. The sense of crisis in US-Israel relations made the Aipac conference the ultimate arena for discussing, arguing and reconciling Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu's differences.

It ended with mixed results.

A Palestinian youth protesting Israel’s building plans hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops in the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem

A Palestinian youth protesting Israel’s building plans hurls stones during clashes with Israeli troops in the Shuafat refugee camp in east Jerusalem

Aipac's outgoing president was clearly afraid that delegates would disrupt Mrs Clinton's speech, reminding them of the need to behave courteously. This didn't happen, though, and concerns that the pro-Israel gathering would cause yet another escalation in rhetoric were soon dispelled as well.

All speakers stressed the strong bond between the US and Israel. The words "unshakable", "friendship" and "commitment" were repeated often, along with assurances of a bright future.

In this sense the conference, and the talks held by Israeli PM Netanyahu with President Obama, VP Biden and Secretary Clinton, did succeed in lowering the flames and putting relations back on track.

But they also made apparent the differences between the two sides.

Speaking to a packed but quiet hall, Mrs Clinton made clear that the US strongly believes it is time to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"The status quo is unsustainable for all sides. It promises only more violence and unrealised aspirations. Staying on this course means continuing a conflict that carries tragic human cost," she said.

She stressed that Jerusalem is an issue that should be determined between Israel and the Palestinians, and that expanding Jewish housing in the city's east undermines trust.

Mr Netanyahu, at the same podium hours later, stated his opposite approach. "Jerusalem," he told a roaring crowd, "is not a settlement. It is our capital."

Leaders and delegates at the Aipac conference supported Mr Netanyahu's approach and expressed their dismay over the manner in which the Obama administration chose to conduct this dispute with Israel.

"Disagreements over policy between the US and Israel, between any two allies, happen," said Lee Rosenberg, Aipac's incoming president, "but how friends disagree, how they react when missteps occur, that can determine the nature of the relationship."

While both sides seem to have agreed to tone down the debate, it is clear that disputes will resurface as the peace process moves forward.

Mr Netanyahu is left in a weak position. President Obama won his greatest political victory this week, when Congress approved a historic healthcare reform. Mr Obama now enjoys more political clout than ever.

Analysts agree that a stronger Mr Obama will be more likely to push more strongly for Middle East peace without fear of political backlash - even if this involves pressuring Israel.

Nathan Guttman is the JC's Washington correspondent

Last updated: 2:23pm, March 25 2010