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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Obama Team Readying for Clash with Netanyahu, Lieberman

08/04/2009 - Hanan Awarekeh - Almanar

In an unprecedented move, the Obama administration is readying for a possible confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by briefing Democratic congressmen on the “peace process” and the positions of the new government in Israel regarding a two-state solution.

The Obama administration is expecting a clash with Netanyahu over his refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Zionist entity.

In recent weeks, US officials have briefed senior Democratic congressmen and prepared the ground for the possibility of disagreements with Israel over the peace process, according to information recently received. The administration's efforts are focused on President Barack Obama's Democratic Party, which now holds a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The preemptive briefing is meant to foil the possibility that Netanyahu may try to bypass the administration by rallying support in Congress.

The message that administration officials have relayed to the congressmen is that President Obama is committed to the security of Israel and intends to continue the military assistance agreement that was signed by his predecessor, George W. Bush.

However, Obama considers the two-state solution central to his Middle East policy, as he reiterated during a speech in Turkey on Monday, and he intends to ask that Netanyahu fulfill all the commitments made by previous governments in Israel: accepting the principle of a Palestinian state; freezing settlement activity; evacuating illegal outposts; and providing economic and security assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

Administration officials made it clear to congressmen that the Palestinians will also be required to fulfill their obligations in line with the road map and the Annapolis process.

According to the reports received in Tel Aviv, the U.S. administration is not concerned about recent statements by Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman calling for a rejection of the Annapolis process or overtures made by Netanyahu during the election campaign.

U.S. officials say they will wait and hear Netanyahu's position from the prime minister himself when he meets Obama in Washington next month.

The Obama administration is also not opposed to the resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria but will insist that the Syrian track not be used in Tel Aviv as a way of evading obligations undertaken by Israel as part of the Annapolis process.

Obama is in no hurry to bring the U.S. in as lead mediator between Israel and Syria. American involvement, which both Israel and Syria consider essential for substantive progress, will remain conditional on progress in the dialogue between Washington and Damascus.

Regarding Iran, the Obama administration is preparing the ground for a policy distinguishing between Iran's right to have nuclear technology, including uranium enrichment done under international supervision, and the actual building of a nuclear weapon.

Moreover, the US State Department hit back at Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's warning on Tuesday to those pressuring Israel on its foreign policy agenda.

The Yisrael Beitenu chairman and recent appointment to the top ministerial position also said that the world was willing to listen to his ideas, accusing the Israeli left of attacking his positions to score points abroad. "We have never interfered with other people's affairs and we expect of others not stand with a stopwatch in hand," Lieberman told party members at a conference.

Washington has other ideas however. State Department spokesman Robert Wood responded to a question regarding the foreign minister's statements, saying that the US' top priority was to steer the stagnated talks back to the pursuit of the two-state solution.

Wood said that Obama's special envoy to the Mideast, George Mitchell, would be visiting the region next week to “continue discussions with how we can move back to a very positive track with the goal being a two-state solution. We are going to hear comments from various parties about how they assess things.” Wood acknowledged that the situation was complex.

Sources in Washington say that at present time President Obama does not have plans to visit the Zionist entity in June, nor are there clear plans for Netanyahu to visit Washington in May.

Behind the scenes both sides are intent on reassuring each other, with the Americans maintaining restraint in the face of Foreign Minister Lieberman's statements until the Netanyahu government formally lays out its foreign policy agenda.

Lieberman riled not only American nerves on Tuesday, but Israeli ones as well. Opposition MK Yohanan Plesner from Kadima said that Lieberman's comments "are causing grave harm to Israel's (ties) to the US administration. The fears preceding his appointment to such a sensitive office are proved true every day anew.

"At such a sensitive time, when Israeli-US ties are about to be redefined, Lieberman is damaging the relationship and putting at risk America's commitment to supporting Israel. Lieberman needs to understand that state diplomacy can't be managed like a branch of Yisrael Beitenu," he said.

Plesner said that Labor now has one last chance to "come to its senses and stop playing the role of fig leaf for a government that is causing so much damage to Israel's foreign relations."

And as for the 'opposition' within Labor? MK Eitan Cabel: "The elephant continues to run amok and there is no one to stop him. I expect the Labor ministers, first and foremost among them (Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak), to stop standing on the sidelines – because this is the promise made to the public when (Labor) entered the coalition. It must be stopped now because the man's lack of control over his mouth causes irreparable harm."

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