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The International Community Concerns and Netanyahu: Falling on Deaf Ears?

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In a follow up to uncharacteristically strong statements from the Obama administration critical of, in the words of Hilary Clinton, Israel's "insulting" behavior, today, March 19, the Middle East quartet (the UN, the EU, Russia and the US) has strongly denounced Israeli's "unilateral" construction plans to build 1,600 new homes in East Jerusalem and said the status of Jerusalem could only be resolved through negotiations between both parties. Lady Ashton, EU foreign policy chief, stunned by is her recent visit to Gaza, is reported to have described conditions as "worse than Haiti."

But will all of this fall on deaf ears. Netanyahu and supporters like US syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer opinions would have us think that the announcement during Vice President Joseph Biden's visit to the region of Israel's intention to build new settlements in East Jerusalem was a gaffe due to uncoordinated timing between the prime minister and his Ministry of Interior. The Israeli ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, told the Washington Post: "The goal of both sides at this point is to put this behind us and go forward with the proximity talks as quickly as possible."

Why shouldn't the Israeli government go this route? Israeli prime ministers like Netanyahu have all at the end of the day gotten their way, could always be sure that, as seen more recently in Israel's wars with Hizbollah in Lebanon and its invasion and devastation in Gaza, they could ultimately do whatever they wanted to do with impunity. As Henry Siegman, former Executive Director of the American Jewish Congress (1978-1994), director of the US Middle East Project in New York and a visiting research professor at SOAS, University of London has recently observed, described the administration's position on settlements as based on a bizarre notion that halting Israel's continuing theft of Palestinian territory beyond the Green Line is an Israeli "concession" that deserves to be rewarded by Palestinians and Arab countries with real concessions; indeed, that Arab "gestures" are necessary to justify U.S. demands that this thievery end. It is this perverse characterization of Israel's obligation to cease its illegal confiscations of Palestinian territory as a concession that is responsible for the behavior that finally has outraged Washington.

Avi Shlaim, prominent Israeli and Professor of International Relations at Oxford described Netanyahu's approach to negotiations and his settlement policy as "like two men negotiating the division of a pizza while one continues to gobble it up." (Avi Shlaim, Blair: Gaza's Great Betrayer).

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, US Gen. David Petraeus to the surprise of many also weighed in on the significance of the Arab-Israeli conflict, charging that it hurts America's ability to advance its interests in the Middle East. Petraeus called the conflict one of the "root causes of instability" and "obstacles to security" in the region - which aids al-Qaida - and argued that serious progress in the peace process could weaken Iran's reach, as it uses the conflict to fuel support for its terror group proxies.

In President Obama's Cairo speech, he quite rightly acknowledged America's relationship and support for Israel while also acknowledging the generations of Palestinians that have suffered under the occupation and taking a strong stance regarding the creation of a Palestinian state. Regrettably, the President's outstretched hand to the Muslim world and desire to begin a new way forward has faltered seriously, leaving many wondering whether real change was ever going to occur. Critics charge that US foreign policy under Obama, as with his predecessor, seems to be an extension of Israeli foreign policy, from past American vetoes of 32 Security Council resolutions critical of Israel, more than the total number of vetoes cast by all other Security Council members, to failure to support UN resolutions that call on Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories.

Will Obama, faced with stiff opposition from the Israel lobby and many members of Congress, a host of commentators with easy access to major media, hardline Evangelical Zionists, seize this opportunity to turn the corner, to bring real pressure on the Netanyahu government? The Obama administration, with strong leadership from Secretary of State Clinton and a greatly accelerated pace by Sen. George Mitchell, and in consort with the other Quartet members and support from Arab and Muslim allies will have to move quickly and decisively, insisting on clear preconditions regarding the settlements and Netanyahu's claim to all of Jerusalem. They must do more than simply urge Israel to lift its devastating blockade of the Gaza Strip and open it to humanitarian and commercial traffic. They must insist on the Quartet's call for Israel to freeze all settlement activity "including natural growth," to dismantle outposts erected since March 2001, and to "refrain from demolitions and evictions in East Jerusalem."