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Monday, May 10, 2010

To Freeze or not to Freeze

Ever since the recent fallout in U.S.-Israel relations over Israel's announcement that it would build 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem, Netanyahu and Obama have been going back and forth in sending mixed messages about whether there has been an agreement by the Israeli government to halt all East Jerusalem construction in order to appease both the Palestinians and Obama himself.

President Obama had insisted that Netanyahu cease all construction in East Jerusalem as a gesture to the Palestinians in order to start the Proximity Talks and as a means of repairing the much talked about rift in U.S.-Israel relations. 

In order to appease Obama and the Palestinians, the Associated Press reported towards the end of April that Netanyahu relented on his promise not to stop  building in East Jerusalem.

However, the Mayor of Jerusalem told the media during his visit to Washington a few weeks ago that building in East Jerusalem had not stopped.

Nevertheless, George Mitchell announced on Sunday that Israel agreed to a halt of all East Jerusalem Construction for a period of two years.

A day after Mitchell's euphoric announcement, Netanyahu adamantly told his Likud loyalists that there had been no agreement with the Americans to stop East Jerusalem construction and that construction in East Jerusalem would continue.

Someone is clearly dropping the ball here and playing diplomatic games.

One explanation for the  mixed messages is that Netanyahu has to cater to the opinions of the Israeli public and in particular the more hawkish wing of his coalition government which is overwhelmingly opposed to any halting of East Jerusalem Construction.  By Netanyahu making public statements in Israel which satisfies the more hawkish elements of the Israeli electorate while  privately telling Obama that he intends to stop East Jerusalem Construction, Netanyahu can stay on good terms with the Obama Administration and his own government.

On the other hand, George Mitchell and the Obama Administration have an interest in satisfying the Palestinians. It is thus also plausible that Mitchell is claiming that Netanyahu has agreed to halt East Jerusalem construction when in fact he has not.

Either way these conflicting statements about whether or not there has been a halting of East Jerusalem Construction, is counterproductive.

If Mitchell is going to make baseless statements claiming that Netanyahu has agreed to halt East Jerusalem Construction, Netanyahu will be forced to refute those claims to his own party in order to keep his government intact. There is no sensible outcome in causing an uproar in the Israeli political scene to score points with the Palestinians. Otherwise, Obama will be seen by many as the President who meddled in Israeli affairs which will have political consequences for the Obama Administration.

However, if Netanyahu is the one who is playing the diplomatic games and Mitchell has correctly stated that Netanyahu did agree to halt East Jerusalem Construction, Netanyahu will be viewed as being untrustworthy and not consistent.

Quite frankly, Netanyahu should set the record straight in both his public appearances and private conversations with the Americans that Israel will continue to build in Jerusalem regardless of any criticisms by the Obama Administration as Israel has an absolute right to build in its own capital city.

As long as these conflicting statements continue to make headlines, people are going to wonder who is telling the truth which is only bad politics for both Netanyahu and Obama.