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AIPAC Conference Highlights U.S.-Israel Tensions

March 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Members of an influential pro-Israel lobbying group gathered in Washington this week, as the Israeli prime minister had private meetings with President Obama. Jeffrey Brown reports on the strained relationship between the U.S. and Israel over plans to build more settlements in East Jerusalem.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, Jeffrey Brown reports on a tense time between the U.S. and Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was a standard stop for a visiting Israeli prime minister, as Benjamin Netanyahu came to Capitol Hill this morning, and was treated to what these days in Washington is a rare moment of bipartisanship.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israeli prime minister: I thank you for giving us that constant support and for being unflagging in your friendship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last night, another, even more friendly, stop to the pro-Israel lobby group known as AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, holding its annual conference.

But these are not normal times for Israel and the U.S., and the prime minister’s visit has come after nearly two weeks of tension with the Obama administration. It’s led to a sharp diplomatic rift.

It began on March 9 in the midst of a visit by Vice President Biden, when Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. The Obama administration has called for a freeze on new building. And the announcement was taken as a public insult.

U.S. VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Because that decision, in my view, undermined the trust required for productive negotiations, I, and at the request of the president, Obama, condemned it immediately and unequivocally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Secretary of State Clinton followed that with a reportedly heated phone call to Prime Minister Netanyahu, demanding that Israel put forward specific new measures to show it’s serious about the peace process.

In Israel, since the settlement announcement, Palestinian protesters have repeatedly clashed with Israeli forces. And Jerusalem residents have weighed in.

JONATHAN YOSSEF, Jewish settler resident (through translator): We expect Netanyahu to implement the principles upon which he was elected. He was elected in order not to give or hand out anything.

MUHAMMAD SABBAK, Palestinian resident: Mr. Obama has to press — or to have pressure on Israel, especially on Netanyahu, to stop evictions and demolishing houses in East Jerusalem.

JEFFREY BROWN: American Jews have also offered sharply different views. Jeremy Ben-Ami, head of J Street, a recently-formed advocacy group that supports a two-state solution, with a shared Jerusalem, supported the Obama administration’s stance.

JEREMY BEN-AMI, executive director, J Street: It can’t be too clear, it can’t be stated too clearly to the Israeli people and to the government that a direct slap in the face to the vice president of the United States, when he’s come to the country to express the depth of the friendship, the warmth of the relationship, a commitment to addressing Iran, a commitment to stand with Israel’s security, to do this to American credibility at that moment is deserving of that word, of — of condemnation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ben-Ami says recent events expose divisions within the American Jewish community.

JEREMY BEN-AMI: There are those who would fall on a more conservative side of a political spectrum and believe that compromise and peace is not possible, and believe that there are only military solutions and only one winner.

And then there are those in the American Jewish community who believe in a win-win solution, who believe in the necessity, the existential necessity, of a Palestinian state and a two-state resolution. And those voices are — are both being heard now in the community, as they are heard in Israel.

JEFFREY BROWN: But Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former Bush administration official, says a majority of American Jews are increasingly worried about the state of affairs between the U.S. and Israel.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS, senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations: My judgment is that most American Jews at this point think the Obama administration is simply unsympathetic to Israel, the president is unsympathetic to Israel. This has been a kind of sentiment in the community over the past year, though nobody wants to say much about it in public, partly because most Jews are Democrats.

JEFFREY BROWN: Abrams calls the Obama administration actions of the last weeks way over the top.

ELLIOT ABRAMS: In previous administrations, people have gotten annoyed. They have told the Israelis they were annoyed, but they haven’t turned it into a crisis. The administration chose to make this a crisis. And the moment you see that is the use of the word condemn.

We use condemn in diplomatic parlance almost exclusively for acts of murder and terror. We do not use it for acts of city planning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yesterday, continuing official differences were aired at the annual AIPAC meeting. Secretary Clinton spoke in the morning, reiterating the strong and close ties of the two countries, and drawing a strong ovation when she talked of their mutual stance towards Iran.

But the hall was noticeably quieter as she continued to press on Israel’s new building.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, U.S. secretary of state: New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need.

And it exposes daylight between Israel and the United States that others in the region hope to exploit. It undermines America’s unique ability to play a role, an essential role, in the peace process.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that night, in his address, Netanyahu gave no ground.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Jerusalem is not a settlement. It’s our capital.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next stop, the White House this evening, as President Obama hosts Prime Minister Netanyahu behind closed doors, in an attempt to clear the air and begin to move Mideast peace negotiations back on track.