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As tensions cool, U.S.-Israel dispute moves behind closed doors

As the dramatic public spat between the United States and Israel headed into its second week, leaders on both sides shifted the discussions from the public arena to a series of highly sensitive interactions behind closed doors in what appears to be an attempt to ratchet down tensions between the two close allies. U.S. Secretary ...

As the dramatic public spat between the United States and Israel headed into its second week, leaders on both sides shifted the discussions from the public arena to a series of highly sensitive interactions behind closed doors in what appears to be an attempt to ratchet down tensions between the two close allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left for Moscow today without making any further public statements about her demands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, as conveyed during her angry 43-minute phone call last Friday. A State Department official confirmed that Special Envoy George Mitchell accompanied Clinton on the plane, after scuttling his plans to return to the Middle East.

There is still no formal response from Netanyahu to Clinton’s demands, which reportedly include that he reverse the decision to move forward with 1,600 new East Jerusalem housing units and promise to include core issues in the now-stalled indirect talks with the Palestinians.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that the expected call from Netanyahu to Clinton had not taken place, but there were several other signs Wednesday that both sides were working to dial down the fracas and find a way out of the embarrassing public disagreement.

A White House official confirmed to The Cable that Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Netanyahu over the phone Tuesday night as part of "ongoing consultations." Israeli sources confirmed that a senior Netanyahu advisor was set to meet senior National Security Council staffers Tom Donilon and Dan Shapiro at the White House as well.

The fact that Netanyahu is talking with Biden but not Clinton, coupled with Biden’s seeming willingness to make his point and move on after his March 11 speech, led some insiders to scratch their heads. One person close to the discussions told The Cable that some staffers traveling with Biden in Israel had no idea that Clinton’s call and the very public readout of the call by State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was being planned.

Perhaps they were just out of the loop. "Each of the steps was closely coordinated with the vice president," a senior administration official told The Cable. "Not only did the vice president not object, the vice president helped prep for the call and certainly laid the groundwork for it."

Any speculation that Biden might not have agreed with Obama’s decision to have Clinton make the call is unfounded, the official said.

"Over the course of those couple of days, and frankly until today, the president, vice president, and secretary of state have been very closely coordinating and have been in close touch on the steps that we’ve taken."

A second senior administration official confirmed the account.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to issue statements and press the administration to hold off any further escalation of the dispute. Sources told The Cable that several Democratic leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, in a call to Clinton Wednesday, lobbied the secreary for just that.

And while there’s still some lingering sentiment around Washington that the administration overreached by publicly admonishing Israel in the first place and calling the relationship into question, most recognized the quieter approach coming from administration officials as a step back from the ledge.

"It’s beginning to lay the path for them to work together," said one Middle East hand. "Both sides want to dial it down and go back to the way it was. There are just too many other important issues on the agenda, like Iran."

As the dramatic public spat between the United States and Israel headed into its second week, leaders on both sides shifted the discussions from the public arena to a series of highly sensitive interactions behind closed doors in what appears to be an attempt to ratchet down tensions between the two close allies.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton left for Moscow today without making any further public statements about her demands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, as conveyed during her angry 43-minute phone call last Friday. A State Department official confirmed that Special Envoy George Mitchell accompanied Clinton on the plane, after scuttling his plans to return to the Middle East.

There is still no formal response from Netanyahu to Clinton’s demands, which reportedly include that he reverse the decision to move forward with 1,600 new East Jerusalem housing units and promise to include core issues in the now-stalled indirect talks with the Palestinians.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday that the expected call from Netanyahu to Clinton had not taken place, but there were several other signs Wednesday that both sides were working to dial down the fracas and find a way out of the embarrassing public disagreement.

A White House official confirmed to The Cable that Vice President Joseph Biden spoke with Netanyahu over the phone Tuesday night as part of "ongoing consultations." Israeli sources confirmed that a senior Netanyahu advisor was set to meet senior National Security Council staffers Tom Donilon and Dan Shapiro at the White House as well.

The fact that Netanyahu is talking with Biden but not Clinton, coupled with Biden’s seeming willingness to make his point and move on after his March 11 speech, led some insiders to scratch their heads. One person close to the discussions told The Cable that some staffers traveling with Biden in Israel had no idea that Clinton’s call and the very public readout of the call by State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley was being planned.

Perhaps they were just out of the loop. "Each of the steps was closely coordinated with the vice president," a senior administration official told The Cable. "Not only did the vice president not object, the vice president helped prep for the call and certainly laid the groundwork for it."

Any speculation that Biden might not have agreed with Obama’s decision to have Clinton make the call is unfounded, the official said.

"Over the course of those couple of days, and frankly until today, the president, vice president, and secretary of state have been very closely coordinating and have been in close touch on the steps that we’ve taken."

A second senior administration official confirmed the account.

Meanwhile, lawmakers continued to issue statements and press the administration to hold off any further escalation of the dispute. Sources told The Cable that several Democratic leaders, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD, in a call to Clinton Wednesday, lobbied the secreary for just that.

And while there’s still some lingering sentiment around Washington that the administration overreached by publicly admonishing Israel in the first place and calling the relationship into question, most recognized the quieter approach coming from administration officials as a step back from the ledge.

"It’s beginning to lay the path for them to work together," said one Middle East hand. "Both sides want to dial it down and go back to the way it was. There are just too many other important issues on the agenda, like Iran."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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