Monday, March 15, 2010

Ambassador Oren: 'U.S.-Israel relations at their worst in 35 years'

(Haaretz).Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has told the country's diplomats there that U.S.-Israeli relations face their worst crisis in 35 years, despite attempts by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office to project a sense of "business as usual."

Oren was speaking to Israeli consuls general in a conference call on Saturday night. Sunday, Netanyahu continued to consult with the forum of seven senior cabinet ministers over a list of demands that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made in a telephone conversation Friday.

Four consuls discussed the conference call with Haaretz. Some noted that in previous conference calls with Oren, the ambassador took pains to make clear that relations with the United States were excellent. This time, however, Oren sounded extremely tense and pessimistic. Oren was quoted as saying that "the crisis was very serious and we are facing a very difficult period in relations [between the two countries]."

Oren told the consuls to lobby congressmen, Jewish community leaders and the media to convey Israel's position. He said the message to be relayed was that Israel had no intention to cause offense to Vice President Biden and that the matter had stemmed from actions by junior bureaucrats in the Interior Ministry and was caused by a lack of coordination between government offices. "It should be stressed that [our] relations with the United States are very important to us," Oren reportedly said.

Several of the consuls suggested waiting, but Oren hinted that his approach reflected Netanyahu's wishes. "These instructions come from the highest level in Jerusalem," he was quoted as saying, adding that the utmost must be done to calm matters.

Oren told participants in the conference call of a meeting he was summoned to on Friday with Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg for a reprimand. Oren spoke of his surprise at being summoned after believing that the crisis had ended on Thursday.

"Steinberg read to me from the [American] letter of protest, whose content was extremely harsh," Oren reportedly said. Despite several requests for a reaction from the embassy, no response was forthcoming at press time.