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Barack Obama hints at tougher line on Israel


From The TimesMay 5, 2009


Tom Baldwin in Washington


The Obama Administration has signalled a tougher approach towards Israel ahead of fresh talks on the Middle East peace process by insisting it must endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state.


Israel has to work toward a two-state solution,” declared Vice-President Joe Biden today in a speech to the annual conference of a powerful pro-Israel lobby group in Washington.


“You’re not going to like my saying this,” he warned the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) before adding that the Jewish state should not build any more settlements on Palestinian territory, and should “dismantle existing outposts and allow Palestinians freedom of movement”.


President Obama later held a White House meeting with Shimon Peres, his Israeli counterpart, who holds a largely ceremonial position. But the US Administration’s message appeared to be addressed to the new right-wing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is due to visit the White House on May 18.


Mr Netanyahu has dismayed American, Arab and European officials by pointedly refusing to back Palestinian statehood since taking office on March 31. In his own speech to Aipac, sent via satellite link, he said: “We are prepared to resume peace negotiations without any delay and without any preconditions — the sooner the better.” Saeb Erekat, the senior Palestinian negotiator, however, criticised Mr Netanyahu’s speech for its “vagueness” on core issues such as the status of Jerusalem and refugees, as well as its failure to commit to a two-state solution.


Aipac has demonstrated that it — and Israel — still exercise considerable muscle in Washington by persuading the US Justice Department last week to abandon the prosecution of two former employees on charges that they spied on America for Israel.


Aipac’s 6,000 delegates are being urged to bombard Capitol Hill with demands that Congress support ever more draconian sanctions against Iran whose Government has threatened to wipe Israel off the face of the map.


Mr Biden used his speech to reiterate that the US would never abandon its commitment to Israel’s security and that “nothing is off the table” with Iran — a phrase often used to imply that military action against uranium enrichment facilities remains possible.


He added that Israel had the right “to make its own judgment about what it needs to do to defend itself”, which many members of the audience saw as a hint that the US might allow it to deliver an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear sites.


Rahm Emanuel, the White House Chief of Staff, was, however, reported to have linked efforts to thwart Iran’s nuclear programme — “the number one threat in the Middle East” — with progress in the peace process.


He told a private meeting of Aipac donors that the task of building an international coalition against Tehran will be made easier if Israel and the Palestinians hold a constructive dialogue.


Last month, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, warned Israel that it risks losing Arab support for combating threats from Iran if it rejects peace negotiations with the Palestinians.


General James Jones, Mr Obama’s National Security Adviser, is also said to have told a European foreign minister that — unlike the Bush Administration — the White House was now ready to be “forceful” with Israel.


“The new Administration will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question,” General Jones was reported to have written in a confidential telegramme. “We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful toward Israel than we have been under Bush.” General Jones is due to travel to London next week for talks with British officials and Mr Netanyahu’s security adviser, Uzi Arad.


President Ahmadinejad of Iran was today meeting the heads of ten hard-line Palestinian groups — including Hamas — on a visit to Syria, sending what one of the leaders said would be a message to the new right-wing Israeli Government.


The Iranian leader arrived in the afternoon and went to the People’s Palace in Damascus, where he was given a red-carpet welcome by President Assad followed by a closed-door meeting.



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