As the governments of America’s President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to take soundings of each other’s stances, outlooks and agendas, notable points of conflict have emerged, according to several U.S. officials.
“There is a distinct chill in the air,” said a State Department official.
Tensions began with the recent election of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a second term in that office. Netanyahu immediately expressed opposition to a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict, saying that the Palestinians had to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition for talks.
This rankled Washington where President Obama stated, “Lasting peace requires more than a long cease-fire, and that’s why I will sustain an active commitment to seek two states living side by side in peace and security.
” Netanyahu and his new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman gave no ground, refusing to talk of any sovereignty issues, including the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
Washington made its displeasure felt in late March when Israel’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, was denied interviews with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was forced to cut short his visit, according to U.S. officials.
Ashkenazi was able to meet with National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones and Iran envoy Dennis Ross, these sources said.
Obama later talked with Ashkenazi at the G20 meeting in London and invited him for talks at the NATO summit in Strasbourg where the Israeli was informed of U.S. plans of strategic collaboration with Iran in the Afghanistan war, according to U.S. officials.
There was more bad news for Israel, however, including recent statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking that Tel Aviv halt Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories, America’s easing of its attitude towards Iran’s nuclear program, combined with the U.S. administration’s fixed and unyielding determination to obtain measurable progress in achieving an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Taken together, they make for a combustible mixture.
Yet one of the most important tests of wills appears to center on the matter of a U.S. entry visa for Dr. Uzi Arad, the prime minister’s top advisor on Israel’s national security.
Arad’s post of director of Israel’s national security council is one that will require frequent and sensitive consultations with senior U.S. policymakers, U.S. officials said.
The appointment spread dismay through major portions of the U.S. intelligence community because of Arad’s involvement in the AIPAC scandal in which Larry Franklin, a Pentagon analyst, leaked highly classified U.S. intelligence on Iran directly to Dr. Arad.
Arrested in May 2004, Franklin was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 12 and a half years in federal prison where he remains.
Arad, a long-time Netanyahu loyalist who resisted Israel’s 1995 pull-out from Gaza and who has long opposed any political or territorial concessions to the Palestinians, provoked an awkward moment during Secretary of State Clinton’s visit to Israel just after Netanyahu’s election.
As first reported by the Inter Press Service and confirmed by State Department officials, Clinton had been briefed about Arad’s background and told that he was the “foreign person” identified as Franklin’s accomplice in U.S. court records. She was planning to meet Netanyahu, Arad and other aides, but her most important new contact was to be Yitshak Molcho who is expected to act as an unofficial back channel from Netanyahu to the White House.
According to U.S. officials, Clinton, accompanied by Special Envoy George Mitchell and U.S. Ambassador to Israel James Cunningham, suggested to Netanyahu that each side in the meeting should limit itself to three people. Netanyahu agreed, and then, unaccountably, asked the Israeli Ambassador Sallai Meridor to leave the room. “It was either totally tone deaf, tactless or designed as an insult, and Clinton reacted accordingly,” said a U.S. official.
She had no liking for Arad and his presence smothered any chance of openness of discussion, U.S. officials said.
The humiliated Meridor resigned a few days later.
For the past two years, Arad has run up against a stone wall every time he has applied for a U.S. entry visit. He has publicly denied that he accepted classified data, characterizing the meeting in a Washington cafeteria where the data was passed as “superficial,” and that he and Franklin had coffees and “discussed the agendas of the day.”
But he had worked for the Israeli spy agency, the Mossad, for 25 years and is notorious as a far-right wing hard-liner. Recently, he said of the Arab-Israeli dispute, “We want to relieve ourselves of the burden of the Palestinian populations, not the territories.”
Asked about Arad’s visa, an Israeli Embassy spokesman referred the ME Times to the State Department, saying that he did not know the status of the visa dispute, and a State Department spokesman referred us back to the Israeli Embassy, noting that information on visas is classified.
(Intelligence correspondent of the Middle East Times)