The charged relationship between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been topped with open outrage by the US administration over construction plans in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood. Does this unprecedented protest point to a serious crisis with Washington?
Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval doesn't seem to think so. "In the eyes of the Israeli media we are supposedly going from one crisis to the other, week by week," he said, but admitted that "the demand not to build in Gilo seems strange and even bizarre since it has been inhabited for 30 years and over.
"It's not east Jerusalem – Arabs have never lived in Gilo and its houses weren't built on private Arab land," he explained.
Shoval offered two possible explanations to the American response. "Perhaps they confused the Gilo issue with the planning of a new Israeli neighborhood between Gilo and Beit Jala. Overall, when you sit in Washington and look at the maps it's hard to tell the difference.
"The other reason could be that the US administration wants to encourage Abu Mazen (Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas) and is also trying to cover up Hillary Clinton's various statements, maybe they were trying to create a balance."
Shoval said that the Americans now admit, whether in public or in confidence, that their initial insistence of viewing the settlement issue as a central focal point of the peace process was a mistake.
'Arabs have never lived in Gilo' (Photo: Reuters)
Shoval, who acted as ambassador on two terms at the beginning and the end of the 1990's, noted that the Americans have raised the demand to stop building in the territories many times, but never in a concrete way. "The Obama administration is different, and that stems both from the change in the US's status in the world and the attempts to negotiate with difficult opponents such as North Korea and Iran."
However, relations between Israel and the US have remained strong, according to the former ambassador who pointed to the Congress' support of Israel. "My estimate is that this support won't wane – just the opposite."
'Israel doesn't take orders'
Moshe Arens, who acted as Israel's ambassador to Washington in the early 1980's, also believes there is no cause for serious concern. "Crisis is too big of a word. It's not a crisis but a difference of opinion that we have shared in the past and will share in the future."
The only difference, Arens noted, was the media. "There has been a change with the Obama administration, both in tone and in music. Perhaps the demand has always existed in internal conversations, but it has not prompted such public resonance as it does today." Arens further claimed that Israel is not one to receive orders and noted that it was legitimate to reject the American administration's demands.
On the other end of the fence stands Professor Michal Pomerantz, an expert on international law and US foreign policy in the Hebrew University. Pomerantz stressed the precedent that the construction in Jerusalem now poses.
"The Jerusalem issue had not caused crises in the past, since there were no demands regarding Jerusalem. It has never existed in any other administration despite some fluctuations on the matter. The Obama administration is more demanding."
In respect to the future of the relations, Prof. Pomerantz could not predict US considerations. "They're also fluctuating. On the one hand their direction was to come closer to the Palestinian viewpoint. On the other hand, Israeli public opinion has experienced some kind of disillusionment, accepting that the US administration was becoming more hostile."