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An Obama Diktat To Israel?

In Cairo, U.S. President Barack Obama Tells Middle East That Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu Must Act First By Halting Building At Existing Settlements

IsraCast Assessment: Barack Obama Views Arab-Israeli Conflict Through 'A New Set Of Lenses'

Barack Obama (White House Photo, Pete Souza)

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have put a brave face on U.S. President Barack Obama's historic speech in Cairo. However, the new American leader has called on Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make the first major concession on the explosive settlement issue in order to restart the stalled Israeli- Palestinian peace effort. In Jerusalem, Obama is perceived as sending a diktat to Israel or else be held responsible for sabotaging America's entire Middle East policy.

U.S. President Barack Obama has sent a resounding message throughout the Middle East - he has declared that an immediate halt to all Israeli settlement building on the West Bank is a vital American interest and the linchpin for his entire policy in the region. Although Israeli officials talk optimistically about working out a possible understanding with the Americans, Obama appears to have issued a diktak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The implication is that if Israel does not comply, Washington will hold Jerusalem responsible for the failure to jump-start the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. By the way, this may actually be an optimistic approach. It remains to be seen if the building freeze in settlements is only stage one or whether the new U.S. President will also press for the dismantling of existing settlements and not just those unauthorized outposts that Israel is committed to removing.

Barack Obama now sees the Arab-Israeli conflict 'through a different set of lenses' than did most of his presidential predecessors

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Labor had co-ordinated on the removal of two such outposts hoping this would placate the Obama administration, but to no avail. To draw on an analogy from another context by British historian Ian Kershaw, Barack Obama now sees the Arab-Israeli conflict 'through a different set of lenses' than did most of his presidential predecessors. (In the 1977 peace talks with Egypt, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin accepted a three-month moratorium on building new settlements and agreed to only 'thicken' existing settlements. Past U.S. presidents have gone along with this but not Obama.) Nor has there been any indication that Obama is ready to honor the Bush understanding which Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received in return for accepting the Road Map peace plan that calls for 'two states for two peoples'. At the time, Bush and his top adviser Dov Weisglass heralded this commitment by President Bush as an historic achievement lending  U.S. support for Israeli control of the settlements blocs in a final peace accord. On the other hand, Obama has  told the Palestinians and the rest of the Muslim world that 'Israel will not go away' and has a right to exist linking it to the Holocaust of six million Jews during World War II.

Netanyahu and Obama in the White House (Photo: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Prime Minister Netanyahu is now caught in a double bind; he and his Likud party won the recent general election running on a campaign of strong support for settlement building. With the exception of Labor, the other coalition partners are also ardent backers of settlement building viewing it as an historic Jewish right to build in all of Judea & Samaria. Moreover, this territory serves as a strategic bulwark protecting the narrow waist of central Israel. It is fair to say Israeli officialdom has been stunned by the sudden shift in Obama's approach; the 'special U.S.- Israeli relationship' is no longer so special and the political coordination between the two countries may be a thing of the past. The extent of this consternation runs deep. At a closed-door session of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee this week, Netanyahu was asked if Obama even opposed the building of a balcony to an apartment in Judea & Samaria. The Prime Minister responded more or less: 'I can't say, this is something we're trying to clear with the Americans'. 

the 'special U.S.- Israeli relationship' is no longer so special and the political coordination between the two countries may be a thing of the past

What options does the Israeli Prime Minister have in the current clash with a charismatic American President who enjoys immense popularity not only in America at large but also with  the U.S. Congress and with 78% of American Jews voting for him? Obviously, Netanyahu's room for maneuver is extremely limited and he will be loath to take on Obama at a time Israel faces the existential of a nuclear armed Iran and hopes for American support for whatever course it chooses to take. (A senior IDF intelligence officer has disclosed that by the end of this summer, Iran will have acquired sufficient low-grade fissile material to produce enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has been discussing the Iranian nuclear threat with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Washington.) One Netanyahu option could be to draw on Begin's precedent and declare a moratorium on non- essential building at existing settlements - this could be made contingent on a total halt to Palestinian terror attacks from both the West Bank and Gaza, or some such variation.

Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

Speaking before the Obama speech, the Prime Minister declared: 'It is impossible to freeze life in Judea and Samaria!' Any new type of settlement would set many settlers on the rampage- they are already warning the government not to dismantle any more of the unauthorized outposts. Some members from the far Right could bolt the coalition putting the government at risk. Now the Opposition Kadima party lead by Tzipi Livni has reacted by charging 'we told you so!' In refusing to voice support for the two-state solution, Netanyahu had precipitated the Obama demand for a total halt to building at existing Israeli settlements. Livni refused to join the Netanyahu coalition due to this very point. If the Prime Minister were prepared to accept the two state proposal, this could pave the way for Kadima replacing those Right-wingers who might split. (Kadima Knesset Member Shaul Mofaz, a Livni rival, has been campaigning inside the party for joining the government). This politicking comes against the backdrop of most Israelis believing there is actually no prospect for making peace with the Palestinians anyhow. It's not as if this a golden opportunity. On the contrary, Palestinians run by Fatah and an the impotent President Mahmoud Abbas on the West Bank are fighting a bloody feud with the radical Hamas which rules Gaza. And Hamas like Iran openly declares it will eventually annihilate Israel, one half of the two- state solution. In fact, the Israeli assessment is that if Palestinian elections were held today in the West Bank, Hamas would probably win. Even the security apparatus of Mahmoud Abbas is not strong enough to take on Hamas in the West Bank without the support of Israeli security forces.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat

This being the case, there is less than one-half of a Palestinian partner at best, and the Palestinians have an unblemished  record of missing every peace opportunity going back to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Ariel Sharon (after Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza) and most recently Ehud Olmert) who did somersaults trying to forge an agreement with Abbas. So, why not play ball with Obama, make the tactical concession on settlement building and avoid being blamed for sabotaging the peace process, which the Palestinians are likely to do anyway? The counter argument is that this could be going down a slippery slope. Perhaps the U.S. through secret contacts could prevail on Hamas to continue its current ceasefire, while it continues to regroup for the next round, after the pounding it took the recent Cast Lead Operation into Gaza. Without Abbas and Hamas settling their differences it would be impossible to seriously conduct peace talks. Olmert and Livni have already 'been there and done that' with Abbas. Kadima Knesset Member Tzachi Hanegbi, who has acted as a go-between for Netanyahu and Livni has said the government's acceptance of the two- state solution could ease American pressure on the settlement issue. In any case, there are also threatening signs from the European Union, Israel's largest trading partner, about its imposing commercial sanctions on Israel.

most Israelis believe there is actually no prospect for making peace with the Palestinians anyhow

Meanwhile, in the West Bank this week, two clashes between Abbas security forces and Hamas killed nine people - the bloodshed could now spark more firefights between the two rival forces. Hamas accuses Abbas of collaborating with Israel in a crackdown. The Abbas forces have been trained by U.S. General Keith Dayton in Jordan, but it is still uncertain if this is the start of a serious crackdown on Hamas.

Bottom line: Obama has now put the onus on Netanyahu with the 'settlements first' approach. In so doing, the U.S. President also appealed primarily to the 'Arab Street' to give America a chance. Although the regimes of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the other moderate Arab states are as fearful of a nuclear- armed Iran as is Israel they also seek public opinion at home for joining a U.S. lead coalition against Iran. This is apparently why Obama turned over backwards, at times even distorting history, in his lavish praise of Islam and its historical role. The American leader then touched all the bases, by meeting later  meeting with Israeli correspondents in Cairo and telling them how Prime Minister Netanyahu, from the Right of Israeli politics, was now in a better position that anyone else to bring peace to Israel. Nor did he pull any punches in telling the Arab world of America's 'unbreakable bond with Israel' and 'Israel was here to stay'. His comments on the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, perhaps more than the Jewish population of Israel today and his visit to the Buchenwald death camp, did much to balance his visit to Cairo. So now not only Prime Minister Netanyahu has a great deal to ponder, the Israeli public will also have to look the settlement issue straight in the eye and make some hard choices. 

David Essing

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