Clinton to call Netanyahu in bid to ease tensions

Last Updated: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - 12:22

Washington: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to call Israel`s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to ease a bitter diplomatic feud with the staunch US ally, officials said.
Officials said the call could come as early as Wednesday, as the Obama administration awaits Netanyahu`s response to its complaints over Israeli settlement policy, which has provoked the sharpest US-Israel row in years.

But in a possible sign it wants to stop the row widening, the administration also termed the dispute a disagreement between friends that would not shatter the "unbreakable bond" between the allies.

Uncertainty over US-Israeli relations unfolded amid rising regional tensions, as hundreds of Palestinians clashed with Israeli security forces in east Jerusalem in the worst rioting in years.

The row erupted when Washington, frustrated over a lack of success for its peace brokering, reacted angrily last week to an Israeli announcement that 1,600 new settler homes would be built in annexed east Jerusalem.

The move came at the moment the United States had convinced the Palestinians to take part in indirect "proximity" talks with the Israelis, and during a visit to Jerusalem by Vice President Joe Biden.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters he expected a conversation "very soon" between Clinton and Netanyahu.

A US official later said on the condition of anonymity the telephone call could happen Wednesday.

Earlier, Clinton said Washington was engaged in "very active consultation" with the Israelis over steps that would demonstrate the requisite commitment to reviving peace talks.

Asked whether US-Israeli ties had plunged to a 35-year-low, she answered "I don`t buy that."

"We have an absolute commitment to Israel`s security. We have a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."

Her remarks where echoed at the White House, where spokesman Robert Gibbs said some disagreements were normal between partners. "It does not break the unbreakable bond that we have with the Israeli government and the Israeli people on their security," Gibbs said.

The Israelis appeared keen to portray Washington`s tone at least as a temporary suspension of hostilities. "The State of Israel appreciates and cherishes the warm words from Secretary of State Clinton on the deep ties between the US and Israel and the US commitment to Israel`s security," Netanyahu`s office said.

Israel`s ambassador to the United States Michael Oren meanwhile denied he had told a newspaper the allies had hit their worst crisis in 35 years, claiming he was "flagrantly misquoted" on the issue.

"Discussions are being conducted in an atmosphere of cooperation as befitting long-standing relations," Oren insisted in a statement.

On Friday, Clinton angrily told Netanyahu by telephone that the Israeli announcement on the homes last week was a "deeply negative signal." The State Department announced that US envoy George Mitchell, who had been due to visit Israel, would not do so before a meeting of the Middle East diplomatic Quartet in Moscow on Thursday.

Crowley insisted the move was a mere logistical issue rather than a swipe at Netanyahu, who has apologized for the timing of the settler announcement but has not agreed to halt the construction.

US General David Petraeus also provoked debate on the Middle East crisis, telling a congressional committee that Israeli-Palestinian tensions challenged efforts to advance US interests in the region.

"The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favoritism for Israel," Petraeus said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. Eric Cantor, the number two Republican in the House of Representatives, also said US security was being threatened -- but argued the cause was insufficient US support for Israel.

"This administration is doing things that I think jeopardize our national security because they are playing such hardball with our ally in the region," said Cantor.

Bureau Report



First Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - 12:22

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