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U.S.-Israeli relationship takes new direction

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Pressure. Defiance. Collision. After George W. Bush’s terms of endearment for Israel -- a country he once described as a “light unto nations” -- a different terminology is being used to describe its cloudy relationship with his successor, Barack Obama.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem May 31, 2009. REUTERS/Dan Balilty/Pool

At odds with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Palestinian statehood and Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the new U.S. president will try to patch ties with the Muslim world in an address he will deliver in Egypt on Thursday.

Israelis and Arabs will be listening carefully for one of Obama’s expected messages -- policy Netanyahu has met with defiant words -- that creation of a Palestinian state is essential for peace and settlement expansion must stop.

The U.S.-Israeli rift after eight years of a Bush presidency that pursued statehood only late in its second term and turned a blind eye to settlement building is raising questions over whether a close alliance will deteriorate into alienation.

Maariv, a popular Israeli newspaper, summed it up in a one-word, front-page headline on Tuesday: “Pressure”.

“The president doesn’t want to see even one cement mixer in the West Bank,” an Israeli political source, briefed by Netanyahu aides, quoted U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell telling an Israeli delegation that met him in London last week.

Possible scenarios for twisting Netanyahu’s arm could range from U.S. inaction at the United Nations in thwarting resolutions critical of Israel to choking off some military supplies, political sources and commentators said.

“Delaying the shipment of spares for the Apaches can ground the air force,” political columnist Ben Caspit wrote in Maariv, referring to Israel’s U.S.-made attack helicopters.

“The replenishment of ammunition and weapons supplies in the event of another expected conflagration in the Gaza Strip or Lebanon is a matter of American goodwill,” Caspit said.

Few expect Washington ever to go as far as to hurt Israel’s defences, but it does have other diplomatic pressure points.


Yet appeasing the United States by abandoning a settlement policy that allows “natural growth”, construction which Israel says is to accommodate growing settler families, could tear apart Netanyahu’s two-month-old right-leaning coalition.

“If he gives up on natural growth, it will break his coalition,” the Israeli political source said.

“Netanyahu is not willing to pay the price. The outposts are all he can give,” the source said of dozens of small settlements which Israel has long pledged to remove under a 2003 U.S.-backed “road map” to peace with the Palestinian.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, sent by Netanyahu to the United States this week to meet with government officials to try to ease friction, has promised to move against two dozen of the outposts, some only clusters of caravans on isolated hilltops.

“The situation is very gloomy. They are waiting to see what Barak can achieve in Washington,” the source said.

“And they are waiting to hear (Obama’s) speech. They have no idea what he will say. With Bush they would have had the draft in advance. But they are in the dark. This is part of the American withdrawal of cooperation.”

Offering an incentive, Mitchell told the Israeli delegation that Netanyahu sent to London that if he agreed to a settlement freeze, Obama would press Saudi Arabia to do more to normalise Arab relations with Israel, the source said.

That now seems unlikely, given Israel’s position.

Netanyahu has said Israel had a historic opportunity to pursue peace now with an Arab world that largely shared its concern about Iran’s nuclear programme.

The nuclear issue was high on the agenda of Netanyahu’s talks with Obama in Washington two weeks ago and on many Israelis minds on Tuesday, when air raid sirens sounded as part of the country’s biggest-ever civil defence drill.

Nahum Barnea, one of Israel’s leading political columnists, said people who spoke with Netanyahu recently described him as “anxious, sweating and on the brink of panic”.

Netanyahu, who clashed repeatedly with the Clinton administration while prime minister from 1996 to 1999, seemed calm and collected during public appearances over recent days.

Except for one slip, when the man with his finger on the button of Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal, pressed the wrong button in parliament on Monday, voting electronically against a bill put forward by his own government.

(Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald)

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