JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday sought to project calm amid a deepening crisis with the United States, seen as the worst rift between the close allies in decades.
“We opened the papers this morning and saw the analyses and reviews. I suggest we not get carried away, and calm down,” Netanyahu said ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting.
“We know how to deal with situations like these, calmly, responsibly and seriously,” he said.
Israel had thought the crisis — provoked by an announcement of plans for 1,600 new settler homes in mostly Arab east Jerusalem during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden — was over following a public apology issued on Thursday.
But over the weekend the US signalled things were far from business as usual.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton berated Netanyahu in a 43-minute phone conversation before telling the press the move was “insulting,” and sent a “deeply negative signal” about Israel’s ties to its top ally. Related article: Palestinians hail rare US condemnations of Israel.
“The crisis is still in full force and has reached new heights. It appears to be far more severe than anything we’ve known in the past decade, and perhaps even longer,” Israel’s Maariv newspaper said in an editorial.
“When was the last time we heard such harsh words, and such a cold and alienated tone of voice from Washington? And it isn’t just the tone and the words. It is the lack of trust, the contempt,” Israel’s mass-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper said in an editorial entitled “Spit in the face.”
Israel has always viewed the United States as its most important ally and more recently has seen it as a crucial partner in confronting Iran’s nuclear drive, which the Jewish state sees as its greatest strategic threat.
“We are heading into crucial days. The Iranian nuclear threat requires a prime minister who is the US president’s darling,” the Maariv editorial said.
“Instead, we have gotten ourselves a prime minister who is very close to being persona non grata in Washington.”
The influential Haaretz daily suggested Netanyahu needed to re-evaluate his mostly right-wing governing coalition.
“The prime minister has reached the moment of truth, where he must choose between his ideological beliefs and political cooperation with the right on one hand, and his need for American support on the other,” it said in an editorial.
The announcement over the settlements last week dealt a heavy blow to months of US-led efforts to relaunch peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians that were last suspended during the December 2008 to January 2009 Gaza war.
Media reports said the US and Israel had reached a secret understanding that Israel would refrain from announcing new east Jerusalem building projects during the talks, in conjunction with an already agreed public commitment to freeze West Bank construction for 10 months.
The presence of nearly a half million Israelis in more than 120 settlements scattered across the occupied West Bank including east Jerusalem has long been a major obstacle to the peace process.
In an attempt at damage control, Netanyahu set up a committee to investigate the settlement announcement, allegedly made without his knowledge, and prevent its reoccurrence.
He also barred other government ministers from commenting in public on the situation.
“A regrettable incident happened, it was unintentional, but it was hurtful and obviously should not have happened,” said Netanyahu, who took office in April.
On the ground, Israel has extended until Tuesday a lockdown on the West Bank and kept access restricted to the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem as tensions soared over its latest settlement plans.