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An honest Middle East broker?

US Vice-President Joe Biden's condemnation of Israel over a controversial building project in Arab East Jerusalem hit the headlines last week, after he remarked that Israel's approval of 1,600 new homes had "undermined the trust required for productive negotiations".

During a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, Biden said the US would play an active and sustained role in the peace process and warned that it was "incumbent on both sides not to complicate the process".

When President Barack Obama took office last year, expectations were high that the US would become a truly honest broker in the Middle East. On balance the Bush administration tended to be too supportive of Israeli policies, paid only lip service to a two-state solution and gave far more importance to Israel's strategic alliance with the US than the need for a just solution to the Palestinian question.

When Mr Obama succeeded George Bush it was hoped the new administration would adopt more of a balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. During his 14 months in office Mr Obama has said the right things about the need for a Palestinian state and during his first speech to the UN General Assembly last September he criticised Israel over its settlements policy, saying: "We continue to emphasise that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israel settlements."

Last November, Mr Obama warned Israel that its approval of the construction of new Jewish settlements near Jerusalem could prove "very dangerous" by fuelling Palestinian anger and harming prospects for peace. "I think that additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel's security. I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbours," Obama had said.

Unfortunately, however, the Obama administration has so far achieved very little in the ME and has failed to kickstart the peace process. Up until now, its leverage over the right-wing Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has proved to be minimal.

Mr Biden arrived in the Middle East in a bid to get the peace process started again, but Israel's announcement over the new settlements amounted to a humiliation for the Obama administration or, to quote the Financial Times: "a kick in the teeth".

Some observers argue that the US needs to adopt a stronger tone with Israel in view of its hardline policy. For example, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's declaration last October that Prime Minister Netanyahu's statement on a partial (not total) freeze of new settlements (not including Jerusalem) was "unprecedented in the context of prior to negotiations" can be viewed as American submission in the face of intense Israeli pressure.

Israel certainly has very strong ties with the US and has a lot of friends in Congress and the State Department, not to mention the Defence Department and intelligence services. Breaking ranks with Israel is obviously not easy for the Americans, even though in the circumstances it is the right thing to do.

Last month, for example, American Ambassador to Malta Douglas Kmiec was strongly pressured by the US State Department not to attend an international conference in Malta on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after it was boycotted by two Israeli MPs.

Instead, to his credit, Prof. Kmiec - who obviously had the support of the White House - remained at the conference, which he addressed, saying he was speaking neither as "Israel's lawyer nor Palestine's apologist".

Prior to Mr Biden's visit the Israelis and Palestinians had agreed to indirect talks, through George Mitchell, the US special envoy - hardly a breakthrough, but at least a start - but these were cancelled by the Palestinians after news emerged about the new Jerusalem settlements.

This is perhaps what the Israelis hoped would happen and it is indeed difficult to believe Mr Netanyahu's claim that he had no prior knowledge of the decision by the Jerusalem authorities about the settlements.

Even if he was really kept in the dark about the approval of the new housing projects, his 'apology' to Mr Biden cannot be taken seriously because he expressed regret only for the "unfortunate timing" of the decision. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was correct to dismiss Netany-ahu's statement, saying it was "unacceptable because it talks about an error in timing and not an error in substance".

The Obama administration will now have to come to terms with the fact that it has so far fared poorly in its attempt to get the Palestinians and Israelis together at the negotiating table. It has not been helped by the presence of a hardline right-wing government in Israel, but the time is ripe to consider additional pressure on the Jewish state.

Perhaps Mr Obama should remember what President George Bush (senior) had said in 1991 - namely that Israel could no longer take unconditional US support for granted.

When addressing his Israeli hosts, Mr Biden remarked that "sometimes only a friend can deliver the hardest truth". This is exactly what Washington must keep on doing, emphasising that the continuous building of Jewish settlements is not in Israel's long-term interest, is counterproductive and makes Israel less secure as a country.

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