Israeli officials and analysts expressed surprise and confusion over Bush administration statements this week critical of Israel, with some speculating that the remarks may have been triggered by domestic politics.
On Monday, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the thousands of Palestinians left stranded by Israel’s decision to close the border crossing between Egypt and Gaza. The Reuters news agency called it “an apparent rare rebuke of the Jewish state.”
“The burden and hardship imposed upon Palestinians is problematic,” Ereli said.
Israel closed the Rafah border crossing on July 18, citing security concerns and intelligence reports of a possible attack near the crossing. Although it has closed the border in the past, it has usually reopened it after a few days.
At the same time, the State Department also criticized Israeli plans to build 600 apartment units in Maale Adumim, a community of 30,000 just east of Jerusalem.
“The ‘road map’ calls for an end to all settlement activities, including natural growth,” Ereli said, referring to the peace plan adopted by both Israel and the Palestinians.
But Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dismissed the U.S. complaint regarding Maale Adumim.
“It is very clear that there has been an understanding on two issues with respect to construction,” he said Wednesday during a visit here. “We will continue to build within the built-up areas to be sure that people live their normal daily lives. And there is a broad understanding between the two governments that in any future negotiated settlement the existence of large clusters of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] — including Maale Adumim — will be taken into consideration and will not be evacuated in the future.”
Gissin said that although there are “differences of opinion on a variety of issues of when and how to do it,” the principle of Israel being able to take care of the continuous needs of residents was clear.
He suggested that the “publicity around it helped to sharpen the reaction that came from the White House.”
The European Union and Britain were quick to lash out at Israel. A spokeswoman for the British Foreign Ministry called upon Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including construction due to natural growth,” in compliance with the road map, and to vacate all settlements built since 2001. The EU said the 600 new units “run counter to the letter and spirit of the road map for peace.”
But Gissin insisted that Israel “will continue to build in Maale Adumim. It is a suburb of Jerusalem and not a settlement. Even the Laborites in Israel say there is no question that it will remain under Israeli control and not be evacuated.”
Asked about a renewed State Department advisory issued late Tuesday warning Americans not to visit Israel, the West Bank or Gaza because the situation there “remains very volatile,” Gissin called it “regrettable and unfortunate.” He insisted that Israel is a safe place to visit and said it is “not fair to advise Americans not to travel to Israel but to travel to Washington.”
“It is less risky to visit Israel than to visit the IMF [International Monetary Fund] building in Washington and less of a hassle,” he said, referring to the heightened security precautions taken this week after a specific terrorist threat against the building.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he was puzzled by the Bush administration’s criticism of Israel and its renewed pressure on the Sharon government to dismantle illegal outposts. He noted that Sharon, who has promised to remove the illegal outposts, took the renewed pressure seriously and appointed a legal expert to direct and accelerate the removal process and “crack down on illegal caravans” that reopen outposts as soon as they are dismantled.
Steinberg said the new burst of criticism of Israel by the State Department might stem from the fact that it has “more freedom of action” while the president and his staff concentrate on his re-election.
“We had a few months where all of the focus was on the Palestinian side, and the Palestinians have lost a tremendous amount of support,” he said. “This may be an attempt to rebalance the relationship.”
Steinberg observed also that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry’s strong criticism of the Bush administration for alienating the Europeans may have played a role in the Bush administration’s actions. He noted that Kerry pledged to repair U.S. relations with Europe and that Bush may be acting to heal them himself.
“The Europeans were the first to wake up” to Israel’s planned addition to Maale Adumim and it “percolated to Washington,” Steinberg said. “The Europeans wanted U.S. backing to pressure Israel on this, and so to show he is working with Europe,” Bush complied.
All of this criticism has “very much surprised people here,” Steinberg said. And the fact that it comes at a time when Sharon is trying to form a new coalition government “undermines Sharon in terms of his domestic constituency at a crucial time.”
Sharon is attempting to form a coalition government that would add 20 seats to the 59 he now holds in the 120-member Knesset. He is seeking to put together his own Likud Party with the opposition Labor Party, the secularist Shinui party and United Torah Judaism, a fervently Orthodox party.
Shinui leaders agreed in principle this week to enter a coalition with UTJ — something it had previously ruled out — and now it is only a “question of the details,” Steinberg believes.
Sam Lehman Wilzig, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University, agreed that how Shinui justifies its about-face is “secondary.”
“They blinked, and once they blinked you can finesse the rest,” he said.
Wilzig said the Likud needs UTJ in the government because “on the issue of religion and state it has historically been a traditional party.”
“The mass support of the Likud comes not from the Tel Aviv ultra-secular type but from the more traditional who have a respect for Judaism,” he said. “His own party is insisting he have a religious fig leaf, and Sharon realizes he can’t fight his own people on two fronts,” the other being the disengagement from Gaza plan.
But by midweek it was not a done deal and Sharon still had some persuading to do. Yisrael Eichler, a UTJ Knesset member, said that despite Shinui’s landmark announcement, his party still believed Shinui would not sit in the same coalition.
Eichler said UTJ could support a pullback from Gaza and the West Bank and that the party’s rabbis have never ruled against the principle of giving up land for peace. On the other hand, they have yet to give their blessing to Sharon’s disengagement plan.
“There’s still a question of whether this is for peace or for foreign policy,” he said. “We think this is to strengthen the alliance with the U.S.”