Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2013
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2013 © Jason Reed - Pool/AFP/File
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Jerusalem, on November 6, 2013
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Jean-Luc Renaudie, AFP
Last updated: December 3, 2013

Kerry return marked by hot debate over Israel-US ties

US Secretary of State John Kerry's return to Israel on Wednesday comes at a time of heated debate in the Jewish state over its alliance with Washington.

The visit will be his first since world powers including the US on November 24 signed an interim nuclear accord with Iran that has angered Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted the accord, under which Iran agreed to roll back parts of its nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief, as a "historic mistake".

His condemnation has not been toned down by repeated US assurances, including from President Barack Obama, that Iran would never be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb.

Netanyahu himself has now come under criticism at home for challenging Israel's closest ally.

A former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, accused his outspoken rightwing successor of having "declared war against Barack Obama's administration".

And Finance Minister Yair Lapid, a member of the centre-right Yesh Atid party in the governing coalition, has also questioned Netanyahu's tactics.

"We can have disputes within the family as long as they stay in the family" and are not made public, the minister said.

"It's better to tone down (rhetoric) against the Americans since a clash serves no good purpose."

But Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin told army radio Tuesday that Israel should focus on its own security rather than pander to its long-time ally.

"The partnership with the United States is very important but when there are disagreements, the prime minister's job is to prioritise Israel's security, even if it's not that great for our relations with the Americans," he said.

Haaretz newspaper's diplomatic correspondent said Tuesday the Israeli government did not even believe Obama genuinely trusted Iran.

"Netanyahu and his people are not persuaded that Obama is truly determined to stop Iran’s nuclear plan, but think he only wants to toss the hot potato to the next president," Barak Ravid wrote.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last month suggested that Israel should seek partners other than Washington.

On Tuesday, Maariv daily quoted a Netanyahu aide as saying: "Israel cannot rely solely on the Americans ... Israel is taking steps to increase its cooperation with China and Russia."

Netanyahu embarked on a visit to Moscow days ahead of the Iran deal in an apparent snub to the US, but without convincing Russia not to sign the accord.

Speaking at a Tel Aviv University discussion panel, Olmert also slammed the Russia trip, Haaretz newspaper reported.

"Will (Russian President Vladimir) Putin give us $3 billion in military aid a year?" he asked, referring to annual US aid.

Differences on peace talks also

Aside from Iran, the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian peace process has also thrown up differences between Netanyahu and the Obama administration.

Netanyahu last month forced Housing Minister Uri Ariel to back down over newly-announced settlement building, cancelling plans for 20,000 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank -- but only after US criticism.

Commentators said it was an effort to assuage the Americans as an Iran deal loomed closer.

But the government has nevertheless announced several thousand new settler homes slated for construction in the West Bank and annexed east Jerusalem since the US-brokered peace talks began late July.

Palestinian negotiators have already resigned over settlement construction, although president Mahmud Abbas has yet to accept their resignations.

Kerry warned in a November television interview that failure to make peace with the Palestinians could trigger a new, bloody uprising.

"The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos," Kerry said in a joint interview in November with Israel's Channel 2 and the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp.

"I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?" the top US diplomat asked, using the Arabic word for uprising.

The past few months have seen a series of violent incidents in the West Bank, including the killings of both Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers.

But officials insist these are "isolated" incidents and do not signal the beginning of a new, coordinated uprising.

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