The new U.S. administration may get firmer with Israel on a number of issues, including pressuring it to freeze settlement expansion and lift hundreds of military roadblocks in the West Bank. Palestinian and international peace activists try to remove an Israeli roadblock during a demonstration near Bethlehem in September 2007.
JERUSALEM — As predicted by seasoned analysts both in the U.S. and Israel, it appears the Barack Obama administration and Israel could be heading on a collision course in several areas as the new U.S. administration gets a little firmer with Israel.
Three particular issues are concerning Israel: The new administration’s desire to hold talks with Iran when Israel would prefer military action, Washington’s decision to attend a preparatory meeting for the forthcoming U.N. World Conference Against Racism, and a probable American crackdown on Israel’s illegal settlement building and expansion in the Palestinian West Bank.
Following the news that U.S. President Barack Obama intends to pursue dialogue with Tehran and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, Israeli officials are busy putting together a position paper for the new administration in Washington.
Last year the George W. Bush administration thwarted an Israeli attempt to take military action against Iran, according to a report in The New York Times.
The Israelis held simulated dummy runs for an attack on Iran by partaking in aerial maneuvers over eastern Greece in June last year.
Tel Aviv requested bunker-busting bombs from Washington to use against Iran’s alleged underground nuclear reactor in Natanz.
Upgraded refueling jets, which would be necessary for a strike on Iran, were also requested as was a clear flight path over Iraq in order to strike Iran. Israel received 100 bunker-busting bombs but the flight path over Iraq was turned down.
The position paper being formulated by the Israelis lists the problems facing international efforts to curb Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
Israel doesn’t want to see prolonged negotiations between the U.S. and Iran and has argued that Washington should only hold talks for a short period. And should negotiations fail, it has recommended harsh sanctions against Tehran as a precursor to military action.
But Iran is not the only problem the Israelis are facing. The U.S. administration has decided to attend preparatory talks for the forthcoming U.N. Conference Against Racism, Durban 2, to be held in Geneva in April – much to Israel’s chagrin.
“This will be the first opportunity the Obama administration has had to engage in the negotiations for the Durban Review, and – in line with our commitment to diplomacy – the U.S. has decided to send a delegation to engage in the negotiations on the text of the conference document,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement.
“The intent of our participation is to work to try to change the direction in which the review conference is heading,” it said. “We hope to work with other countries that want the Conference to responsibly and productively address racism around the world.”
The conference is named after the first conference which took place in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, amongst bitter acrimony between conference attendees and Israeli delegates.
Critics of Israel stated in Durban that Zionism was racism. Israel in turn accused its critics of being anti-Semitic.
Israel is again afraid that against the background of its recent three-week bloody assault on Gaza, which left over 1,300 Palestinians dead, nearly 5,000 wounded, most of them civilian, and much of the territory’s infrastructure decimated, that it could again receive a lambasting.
Israeli Foreign Ministry officials had previously sought to block efforts by senior American administration officials to change Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s decision to boycott the conference.
One of these officials included Susan Rice, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Obama’s former campaign adviser. Rice is also pushing for the U.S. to join the U.N. Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva.
The body had been boycotted by the U.S., partly because of Washington’s view that it is one-sided in its criticism of Israel.
Samantha Power, another Obama adviser at the National Security Council, is the other official pushing for American participation in Durban 2. Power participated in the initial Durban conference as the representative of a non-government organization and is known for her strong criticism of Israel.
In the past, she expressed support for cutting U.S. military assistance to Israel and transferring the funds as aid to build a Palestinian state. The U.S. will later make a decision on whether to attend the conference in Geneva.
In the interim, Israel’s continued settlement building and expansion in the West Bank could come under fire when U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton next visit Jerusalem.
It is expected that the new U.S. administration will pressure Israel heavily to freeze settlement construction and keep its promise to lift some of the more than 600 Israeli military roadblocks in the West Bank.
Mitchell will bring a team of experts with him who are au fait with the facts surrounding the settlements. They are also up to date on new developments and Israel’s various excuses as to why it failed in the past to meet its obligations under the international peace Quartet’s “road map.”
Measures the Obama administration could possibly take include cutting the equivalent sum of the latest investments in settlements from the remaining budget for U.S. guaranteed loans. This is approximately $1.3 billion out of a total of $10 billion that the U.S. made available to Israel for it to absorb immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Meanwhile the State Department is evaluating the implication of reports that MP Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu – which came third in Israel’s elections last week and is expected to heavily influence the composition of the next Israeli government – was a member of the extremist organization Kach.
Kach appears on the State Department list of terrorist organizations.