Laura Rozen Politico

March 28, 2010

Fierce debate on Israel underway inside Obama administration

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tense visit to the White House last week, an intense debate inside the Obama administration about how to proceed with Netanyahu to advance the Middle East peace process has grown more heated, even as Israeli officials are expected to announce they have reached some sort of agreement with Washington as soon as tonight.

Sources say within the inter-agency process, White House Middle East strategist Dennis Ross is staking out a position that Washington needs to be sensitive to Netanyahu's domestic political constraints including over the issue of building in East Jerusalem in order to not raise new Arab demands, while other officials aligned with Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell are arguing Washington needs to hold firm in pressing Netanyahu for written commitments to avoid provocations that imperil Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

POLITICO spoke with several officials who confirmed the debate and its intensity. Ross did not respond to a query, nor did a spokesman for George Mitchell.

"He [Ross] seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu's coalition politics than to U.S. interests," one U.S. official told POLITICO Saturday. "And he doesn't seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this Administration."

Last week, during U.S.-Israeli negotiations during Netanyahu's visit and subsequent internal U.S. government meetings, the official said, Ross "was always saying about how far Bibi could go and not go. So by his logic, our objectives and interests were less important than pre-emptive capitulation to what he described as Bibi's coalition's red lines."

Ross, the U.S. official continued, "starts from the premise that U.S. and Israeli interests overlap by something close to 100 percent. And if we diverge, then, he says, the Arabs increase their demands unreasonably. Since we can't have demanding Arabs, therefore we must rush to close gaps with the Israelis, no matter what the cost to our broader credibility."

A second official confirmed the internal discussion and general outlines of the debate.

Obviously at every stage of the process, the Obama Middle East team faces tactical decisions about what to push for, who to push, how hard to push, he said. Those are the questions.

As to which argument best reflects the wishes of the President, the first official said, "As for POTUS, what happens in practice is that POTUS, rightly, gives broad direction. He doesn't, and shouldn't, get bogged down in minutiae. But Dennis uses the minutiae to blur the big picture … And no one asks the question: why, since his approach in the Oslo years was such an abysmal failure, is he back, peddling the same snake oil?"

The surfacing of the fierce internal debate underway comes as sources said that the Israeli government is expected to announce as soon as Sunday or Monday that it has struck a deal with Washington on U.S. requests for confidence building steps to advance peace talks.

But officials even disagreed over the nature of the deal or understanding reached.

"There's no deal as would be understood by most," the first U.S. official said. "That is, there's no shared, negotiated and agreed document. Instead, the Israelis have told us a few things we accept as positive, along with much we don't. So I expect you'll see us put out something that emphasizes our acceptance of only part of whatever the Israelis say."

On Friday, before details of the internal administration debate surfaced and in response to Israeli news reports that a spokesman for the Prime Minister had suggested an understanding had already been reached between the Israeli and American governments, a White House spokesman said there was no deal yet.

"United States policy on Jerusalem has not changed," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said by email. "We have not reached any understandings on this issue with the Israeli Government. This is an issue on which the US government has had long-standing differences with multiple Israeli governments and the President believes that the only way for the parties to resolve these issues is by returning to negotiations. That's why we've been talking to the Israelis about how to create an atmosphere that will allow the negotiations to succeed. Those conversations have been productive and will continue, as will our conversations with the Palestinians, about how to make the talks successful."