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Settlements, Snub Cause Latest U.S.-Israel Strain

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a massive new wave of construction in the West Bank, according to a report Sunday night on Israel’s Channel 2 News. It’s part of a deal to calm his restive allies in the settler-backed Jewish Home party. The Channel 2 report has since been confirmed independently by Haaretz, Walla News and other news outlets.

The plans reportedly include some 2,000 new homes, mostly but not all in the so-called settlement blocs that Israel expects to keep permanently. Also included are 12 new roads, infrastructure projects, a park, student housing and the legalization of several illegal settlement outposts. The deal also includes a renovation of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a plan that’s likely to cause new flare-ups at the site, a constant flashpoint that’s holy to both Jews and Muslims.

The plans are to be finalized at a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu, economics minister Naftali Bennett and housing minister Uri Ariel, both of Jewish Home, transportation minister Yisrael Katz of Likud and finance minister Yair Lapid. Haaretz reported that Netanyahu had not yet approved the 2,000 housing units, which he fears will increase tensions with Washington and Europe, and is trying to appease the rightists with the transportation and infrastructure projects. Lapid issued a statement following the Channel 2 report that he opposed construction outside the settlement blocs, and that the timing of the overall deal “will cause harm to Israel.” He said the plan “will lead to a serious crisis in Israel-U.S. relations and will harm Israel’s standing in the world.”

The decision comes at an explosive moment in U.S.-Israel relations. Just this past Friday analysts across the Israeli political spectrum were describing the relationship as having plunged to a historic low point in the wake of defense minister Moshe Yaalon’s visit to Washington last week. Shortly after departing Washington, Yaalon was dealt a humiliating slap when unnamed administration officials told Yediot Ahronot that the minister had been refused permission to meet with senior administration officials including Vice President Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and national security adviser Susan Rice.

The refusals come in apparent retaliation for a series of recent incidents in which Yaalon attacked administration policy and personally insulted Kerry.

Last January he reportedly called Kerry “messianic” and “obsessive” for attempting to broker a two-state peace agreement with the Palestinians, which Yaalon strongly opposes. Then in a speech in March he attacked U.S. Middle East policy as “feeble.” In both cases he was pressured by Netanyahu to apologize, following angry U.S. protests, but he merely stated that he hadn’t intended to damage relations.

During his October 21-23 U.S. visit, Yaalon told the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth that he and the administration “overcame” the earlier dustups. But then he dug himself deeper, explaining that his criticisms had been prompted by America’s “naivete,” “wishful thinking” and “ignorance” about the Middle East.

Yaalon’s run-ins with Washington over the months have delighted rightists who view President Obama as hostile and resent Kerry’s efforts to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Yaalon is widely seen as speaking truth to power, and Washington’s resentment of the insults is treated as just another example of Obama administration hostility.

As for Yaalon, he seems to have been surprised by the hostile reception he got in Washington. Days before leaving for Washington he strongly defended U.S. support of Israel after a Kerry statement drew a crude attack from Jewish Home leader Bennett. Kerry had said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aids ISIS recruitment. Bennett accused Kerry of “blaming the Jews” for Muslims’ beheading of European Christians.

Yaalon is said to have expected that he would be treated in Washington similarly to his predecessor, former defense minister Ehud Barak. Barak was treated as an honored guest every time he visited; indeed, given the ham-handed behavior of Bibi’s wildly inappropriate foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, Barak was treated as a sort of substitute foreign minister during Bibi’s last term (2009-13). Yaalon is said to have expected that the red-carpet treatment would come with the job, oblivious to the fact that Barak was welcomed because he behaved like a partner rather than an adversary, because he treated the administration respectfully — and perhaps more important, because shared Washington’s diplomatic goals of peace and Palestinian statehood.

This weekend, though, experts across the spectrum, including former envoys to America from both Likud and Labor governments, expressed alarm at the worsening of ties, which are considered essential to Israeli security.

Former ambassador to Washington Danny Ayalon, who went on to serve as a Knesset member and deputy foreign minister in Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, told Channel 2 News that “something very bad is undoubtedly going on in the link between Jerusalem and Washington.” He said that while the friction is mainly between personalities, it can “trickle downward” into more substantive areas and cause longer-lasting damage.

Former New York consul general Alon Pinkas, a Labor appointee who’s considered close to former prime minister Ehud Barak, told Channel 2 that while Washington’s barbs are directed at Yaalon, “the target in the end is Netanyahu,” who he said has lost all credibility in the administration.

Former Washington ambassador Michael Oren, a Likud appointee, downplayed the seriousness of the crisis, saying the strategic relationship between the two allies went far deeper than personal relationship and had survived worse bumps in the past.

Oren seemed to put much of the blame for the current tension on the Obama administration. He told Channel 2 News that “the main point is that we are dealing with a highly ideological administration with a worldview that’s different from what we’ve known in the past. We need to recognize this and act accordingly.” Both Oren and Ayalon said Yaalon needs to apologize to Kerry and the administration to prevent further deterioration.

In fact, the administration policies that have led to tensions in relations — opposing Israel’s West Bank settlements, pressing for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement — have been largely unchanged for decades. What’s different from the past is an Israeli government in which two of the three top leaders, the defense and foreign ministers, state openly, explicitly and repeatedly that they’re against a peace agreement with the Palestinian leadership, casting a shadow over the intentions of the prime minister who states that he’s in favor of a peace agreement but surrounds himself with senior aides who oppose it.

Different, too, is the repeated tendency of the current Israeli government, unlike past governments, to irritate Washington and strain the relationship by announcing settlement projects likely to embarrass the administration at sensitive moments. Case in point: the new construction plans reported Sunday night, with tempers still frayed over the blowup with Yaalon.

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