With the Obama administration still waiting for an answer to its demands for a halt to east Jerusalem construction and an extension of the housing start freeze in the West Bank, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Sunday that while Israel must continue cultivating its strategic relationship with the US, Israel alone is responsible for itself, its safety and the future of the Jewish people.
“We are the ones who have exclusive responsibility for Israel’s fate and future and only we will decide on issues of national importance that affect Israelis and the Jewish people,” Barak said in a clear message aimed at the White House.
During a briefing with military reporters just after he sat with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and the inner ministerial forum known as the “septet,” Barak said Israel was at a “delicate and loaded diplomatic juncture” due to the crisis with Washington. He stressed that Israel could never “lose touch” with the importance of the relations and the ability to act in harmony with the US.
“Israel needs to protect itself... and to do that we need cooperation with the entire international community, but above all to strengthen our relationship with the US,” he said. “Our relationship with the US is a pillar and cornerstone for the nation’s security.”
Barak urged Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to present an Israeli peace initiative. He said that while the Americans made certain demands from Israel, what they were really interested in “was knowing if Israel was with them and serious about the peace process.”
“This is the question that bothers the US administration more than the concrete requests that came up before and during our last visit in Washington,” he said.
Barak said that in his opinion, Israel needed to strive for the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state with viable territorial continuity. He said that sensitive issues, such as Jerusalem, refugees, and settlement blocs would come up during direct talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Barak’s comments came on the same day that both Washington and Jerusalem appeared to try to tamp down the recent tension and downplay the less than red-carpet treatment that met Netanyahu last week at the White House.
“This was not about formalities, this was not about a ceremonial meeting. This was a working meeting among friends, so there was no snub intended,” Obama’s top aide David Axelrod said on CNN’s State of the Union program on Sunday morning regarding the chilly reception Netanyahu received at the White House.
Obama met Netanyahu last Tuesday evening at a meeting where no photographs were released, no statements were given, and during which Obama left in the middle to have dinner with his wife and children, leaving Netanyahu to mull over the President’s demands with his staff.
Another top Obama aide, Valerie Jarrett, was asked about the tension on ABC’s This Week, and whether a “bond of trust” existed between Netanyahu and Obama.
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” she replied. “The United States is a strong and ardent ally of Israel. The fact of the matter is that friends can disagree, and I think what’s important is that world leaders are able to sit down with one another, have frank conversations and move forward. I don’t think there is any doubt in the mind of Bibi Netanyahu about the president’s commitment to Israel and its safety, and how important it is for the United States and for the region.”
Netanyahu, for his part, also tried to reduce friction, distancing himself the first thing in the morning from quotes that appeared in the media and that were attributed to sources close to him, saying that the Obama administration was “hostile,” had adopted the Palestinian line, and that the situation with the administration was “catastrophic.”
“I have recently heard anonymous, unworthy remarks in the media regarding the American administration and the American president,” Netanyahu said at the start of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, in which he briefed the ministers on his trip to Washington.
“I would like to make it clear: I find these remarks to be unacceptable. They do not come from anybody acting on my behalf. Relations between Israel and the US are those between allies and friends and reflect longstanding tradition. Even when there are differences of opinion, they are differences of opinion among friends and will remain so.”
Netanyahu told the cabinet there was a gap between the nature of the talks in Washington and the perception of them, although he did acknowledge that perception was important.
“Regarding the issues that came up, there were areas in which there was full agreement, as well as those where there was disagreement,” he said. “We tried to take – and we took – various steps to reduce the gaps in order to advance the process. We are continuing these efforts.”
Netanyahu convened the septet after the cabinet meeting to continue a discussion that began on Friday on how to respond to Obama’s demands.
A top defense official said that among the demands Netanyahu was
expected to respond to were requests regarding construction in
Jerusalem, final borders for the future Palestinian state as well as a
series of confidence-building gestures that Obama asked Netanyahu to
make, including the release of Palestinian security prisoners, the
lifting of IDF roadblocks in the West Bank and the possible partial
lifting of the blockade on the Gaza Strip.
The official said that Israel would be able to approve some of the
requests but not all of them, with the issue of construction in east
Jerusalem one of the most hotly contested issues between Jerusalem and
“There is no urgency in responding, but we will need to reach a mutual
understanding soon,” the official said, adding that what was really
important was a demonstration by the Israeli government that it was
interested in reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians and was
willing to present a peace plan to achieve that goal.