Bibi and His Atmosphere of Permanent Crisis

Barak Ravid writing in the left-leaning Israeli newspaper Haaretz paints a less than flattering view of the Likud government of Prime Minister Netanyahu. While other liberal progressive blogs ( Talking Points Memo, Firedoglake, and Newshoggers) have focused on comments that the Israeli Prime Minister refers to Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod, Obama's senior aides: as "self-hating Jews," I am more struck by the description of Israel's government as being in an "atmosphere of permanent crisis."

An atmosphere of permanent crisis has surrounded Netanyahu's bureau ever since he took office, so it was no surprise that the press conference also had an air of panic. The five advisers - National Security Adviser Uzi Arad, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser, director general of the Prime Minister's Office Eyal Gabai, political adviser Ron Dermer and Nir Hefetz, who heads the public relations desk - arrived at the meeting without a prearranged, uniform message. Over and over, they cut each other off.

Hauser tried to convince the press that Netanyahu's zigzagging on the issue of value-added tax was a deliberate ploy coordinated with the other coalition parties. Arad once again lambasted U.S. President Barack Obama's refusal to honor understandings reached with his predecessor, George W. Bush, on the issue of the settlements, but argued that coordination with Washington on Iran had actually improved. Dermer emphasized Netanyahu's speech at Bar-Ilan University, which he said won international plaudits. And Hefetz denied that there was any panic in Netanyahu's bureau, attributing the friction there to "work-related pressure."

But despite the unified front they tried to present, it is clear that all of Netanyahu's aides dislike each other: They are constantly badmouthing each other and blaming each other for leaks. Arad, for example, demanded that Hauser undergo a lie-detector test and is now demanding the same of Hefetz. And the latter two say "it is impossible to work with" Arad.

Compounding the problem is an inexperienced bureau chief, Natan Eshel, and a former spokesman, Yossi Levy, who is still clinging to his office and refusing to give it up to his replacement, Hefetz - who, for his part, is kept out of half the discussions.

Netanyahu appears to be suffering from confusion and paranoia. He is convinced that the media are after him, that his aides are leaking information against him and that the American administration wants him out of office.

If this is true, it doesn't bode well for the prospects for peace in the Middle East.

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Secretary Clinton Fractures Elbow After Butting Heads with Israel's Foreign Minister

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fractured her right elbow after a fall. Secretary Clinton was on her way to the White House when she fell and injured her elbow, chief of staff Cheryl Mills said in a statement released late Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, the Secretary met with Israel's Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman. The meeting did not go well. More from the Financial Times:

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, clashed face to face with her Israeli counterpart on Wednesday as the two countries remained at loggerheads over the expansion of settlements in occupied territory.

In what appeared one of the most tense encounters between the sides for several years, Mrs Clinton and Avigdor Lieberman, Israel's foreign minister, disagreed on both the US call for a complete freeze on settlement growth and Israel's contention that the administration of George W. Bush, the former president, had signalled that some expansion was permissible.

"We cannot accept this vision about absolutely, com­pletely freezing all settlements," Mr Lieberman said.

In response, Mrs Clinton underlined the US call for a "stop to the settlements", a move she described as "an important and essential part of pursuing the efforts leading to a comprehensive peace agreement".

The meeting at the state department in Washington confirmed that the countries remain at odds on settlements, in spite of the decision of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, to endorse the goal of a Palestinian state. His declaration, which was subject to conditions, followed sustained US pressure.

Wednesday's encounter was all the more significant for Mr Lieberman's record as the leader of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party, who blasted the previous Israeli government's peace efforts. Mr Lieberman is not seen as a promising interlocutor by Barack Obama's administration, which has instead focused its demands on Mr Netanyahu.

"We must keep the natural growth," Mr Lieberman said on Wednesday, referring to the argument that settlements sometimes need to expand to keep pace with births and marriages.

The US argues that such references to "natural growth" have in fact enabled large-scale settlement growth in the past.

While Mr Lieberman suggested that Israel had reached "some understandings with the previous [Bush] administration" allowing natural growth, Mrs Clinton vigorously rejected such a claim.

"In looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements," she said. "That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in positions of responsibility."

Israel will likely continue to build settlements but it will do so to its own detriment. As the President noted in Cairo, "The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements." He added that "This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop."

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As the US Warms to Syria, A Frost May Descend on US-Israeli Relations

The US relationship with Syria has been strained to say the least and though the Bush Administration didn't formally treat Damascus as part of the "Axis of Evil," Syria was effectively treated as an international pariah. The United States has criticized Syria for supporting groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, and has accused the country of allowing extremists to cross its border to fight US-led forces in Iraq. The Bush Administration recalled the US ambassador to Syria for consultations in early 2005 in protest of the Hariri assassination in Lebanon -- Syrian officials have been investigated in the killing, though Damascus denies involvement. Significantly, however, the Bush Administration opted to maintain diplomatic relations even as the relationship continued to sour and deteriorate. As Martin Indyk, the Director of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Studies and former US Ambassador to Israel, noted the dominant view of Syria that had developed in Washington during the Bush Administration is that of  Syria as "a country ruled by an unreliable leader, with ruthless ambitions to dominate its smaller Lebanese neighbor, harboring Palestinian terrorists and Iraqi insurgents, and maintaining an alliance with Iran - a strategic adversary of the United States."

In early March, the Obama administration began taking action to reverse historic US policy of isolation towards Syria preferring to directly engage Damascus even if only temporarily to better gauge what Syria is currently thinking. Though US politicians regularly visit Damascus (Speaker Pelosi and Senator John Kerry among others with Congressmen Stephen Lynch, a Democrat, and Republican Bob Inglis meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad just this past Sunday), no US diplomat had been since 2005. That all changed in March when Secretary Clinton dispatched two high-ranking emissaries, including former US ambassador to Lebanon Jeffery Feltman and Daniel B. Shapiro, the top Middle East officer at the National Security Council.

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