Israel has angrily denounced a veiled threat by the United States to impose sanctions on it. The relationship between the two traditional allies has been strained after Israel rejected a request by the United States to freeze settlement expansion.
In an interview on U.S. media, Middle East envoy George Mitchell said the U.S. could withhold loan guarantees if Israel failed to advance the peace process.
Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Palestinians are to blame for the stalled peace negotiations. The Palestinian Authority has called for a complete freeze on settlement expansion as a pre-condition to re-starting talks. Israel has offered a temporary freeze, although several new settlements have been launched since the freeze was imposed.
In the meantime, senator and former presidential candidate John McCain and fellow senator Independent Joe Lieberman said today they would oppose any move to withold loan guarantees to pressure Israel. The pair are in Israel and were meeting with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
“I don’t think it’s helpful and I don’t agree with it,” McCain said in Yerushalayim. Lieberman said there would be a fight in Congress if a move to pressure Israel was initiated. “Any attempt to pressure Israel, to force Israel, to the negotiating table by denying Israel support will not pass the Congress of the United States,” Lieberman said.
McCain added, “We disagree, obviously, with the comment (by Mitchell) and I am sure that you will see the administration in the future say that is certainly not the administration’s policy.”
Meantime Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz played down the importance of the U.S. loan guarantees.
“We don’t need to use these guarantees,” Steinitz told local media. “We are doing just fine. But several months ago we agreed with the American treasury on guarantees for 2010 and 2011, and there were no conditions.”
Mitchell, in responding to a question on PBS as to what sort of pressure could be applied to Israel, had responded that “under American law, the United States can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel.”
He went on to say George W. Bush’s administration had witheld support on loan guarentees in the past. Mitchell did however say he preferred persuasion to sanctions.
Israel’s Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar said Israel would not yield to external pressure. “The American administration knows that those who are holding up the negotiations are the Palestinians. Israel made many concessions while the Palestinians didn’t do a thing,” he said.
Environment Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said there was no-one in the Israeli government who really believed the U.S. really intends to withhold guarantees. “Israel’s economy is pretty strong, and the threat wouldn’t be appropriate,” he said.