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Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu: "We Will Welcome U.S. President Barack Obama As A True Friend Of Israel"

"Israel Prepared For Historic Compromise That Will End Conflict With Palestinians Once And For All!'

IsraCast Assessment: After Obama's Warm Words For Netanyahu In An Israeli TV Interview, Bibi Reciprocates. Analyst David Essing Is Of the View That Both Obama & Netanyahu Are Trying To Patch Up Differences At The Start Of Their New Terms In Office. Both Have Important Goals They Wish To Facilitate - Obama Wants To Dissuade Netanyahu From Attacking Iran's Nuclear Weapons Sites In The Near Future While Netanyahu Is Interested In Strong American Support In Diplomatic & Military Arenas

Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

 Two days before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Israel, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu presented his new coalition government to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. The House approved the new cabinet by a 68 seat majority in the 120 member House. In his address, Netanyahu referred to the imminent visit of U.S. President Barack Obama.

 The first test for the new Israeli government will be the long awaited visit by U.S. President Barack Obama. In presenting his cabinet, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu used the opportunity to heap rare praise on Obama who, just a week ago had also complemented the Israeli leader in an interview with Channel 2 TV. This sudden rapprochement follows their long standing diplomatic dustup after Obama visited Cairo at the start of his first term, but never came to Israel. Obama followed up by bickering with Netanyahu over Israeli settlements and the borders of a future Palestinian state. In return, Netanyahu quietly backed Mitt Romney in the U.S. presidential campaign. Although the two leaders were at diplomatic daggers drawn, this did not affect the U.S.-Israeli strategic alliance that reached a record high. So, if the feud is indeed over, what did the trick?

Barack Obama

 In the past, Obama omitted that he tripped up by putting too much stress on Israeli settlements and not enough on the final terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. In other words, Netanyahu did not deserve all the blame. On this score, the Israeli leader had even implemented a ten month freeze on settlement construction. Nevertheless, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas still refused to come to the table and drew closer to radical Hamas that governs Gaza and rockets Israeli civilians whenever it sees fit. Instead, he (Abbas) launched a diplomatic intifada against Israel at the U.N. where he sought an imposed settlement on the Jewish state. Moreover, it is now apparent that the euphoric forecasts of Obama and many American pundits about an 'Arab Spring' sweeping the Middle East have missed the mark. In fact, after what has already transpired in Syria and Libya, and to a lesser extent even in Egypt, the Arab Spring has deteriorated into an Arab bloodbath. In Washington, there is a more realistic approach today of Israel's immediate neighborhood. All this bloodshed and instability swirling around Israel has nothing to do with the Palestinian issue, as important as it may be. Like Israel, the U.S. is deeply concerned about what will happen to Syria's huge arsenal of chemical weapons that could fall into Al Qaeda's hands after the eventual collapse of the Assad regime. Those deadly weapons would also pose a grave danger to the U.S. as well as Israel.

 There is also a White House acceptance today that Israel was right all along in contending that Iran is bent on building nuclear weapons. However, the nuclear clocks of Israel and the U.S. are ticking differently because of two factors. First, the distance from Tehran to New York is over 7,700 miles (12,400 kilometers) and Iran has not yet produced ballistic missiles that can cover such great distances. (Iran has launched a rocket into space which is a step toward developing intercontinental missiles). On the other hand, the distance between Tehran and Tel Aviv is only 980 miles (1580 kilometers) and Iran does have Shihab 3 missiles that can cover this distance. Therefore once the Iranians develop nuclear warheads they will still not necessarily have the missiles that can hit the East Coast of the U.S., giving America more time to launch a pre-emptive strike. It also explains why Israeli decision makers are   concerned more than their American counterparts. Second, the U.S. obviously has far greater firepower and range of weapons to knock out Iranian nuclear installations that are built deep underground.

 Obama's time factor…     

Iran to use new and improved centrifuges in its uranium enrichment

 In his TV interview, Obama said Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in 'a year or so' and he was determined to prevent this from happening. There are two ways of looking at his statement. First, a definite U.S. commitment to prevent this from happening – it goes beyond previous declarations about 'all options are on the table'. But it could also be a request and/or demand from Bibi not to bomb Iran in the coming year. On the other hand, the Obama administration is not cutting military aid to Israel despite the belt-tightening in Washington. This message that Israel can count on Obama is directed not only to the new government but also to Israeli public opinion. It comes against the assessment of former Defense Minister Ehud Barak who had warned the Iranians are seeking to reach 'a zone of immunity from a possible Israeli strike that now has only a limited window of opportunity.' But Obama has more than enough on his plate in coping with America's economic woes and the Far East; primarily North Korea and China, have become more problematic than the Middle East these days. In any case, the U.S. President wants to avoid any sudden flare-ups in our neck of the woods if he can help it. He is trying to reassure Netanyahu and his government and no less importantly, Israeli public opinion. Another flash-point is the West Bank where Palestinian demonstrations and violence are on the rise apparently in direct proportion with the declining economic situation. In contrast to his stand against outright terrorism, Mahmoud Abbas has condoned what he dubs as 'popular resistance' to Israel which now includes stoning Israeli civilian vehicles. The experts are divided on whether this could escalate into a full scale intifada but the ingredients are there. The question is, if Abbas warns about the lack of progress on establishing Palestine, why does he not accept Netanyahu's offer to return to the table? Abbas replies not until Bibi announces a halt to settlement building. Bibi replies: 'Been there, done that and I'm not doing it again'. And so it goes. The time could be ripe for Obama to break the logjam.  

 Will Netanyahu agree to hold off on Iran? In his Knesset speech the Prime Minister noted that this spring or early summer the Iranians would pass his red line – their centrifuges would have produced sufficient 20% enriched uranium that could further upgraded to 90% for one A-bomb? And he added: "Iran should not be allowed to cross this red line". Now that Obama has adopted a more 'Bibi friendly' approach, the Prime Minister could continue to follow the U.S. President's lead as he has until now. The new seven member security cabinet will decide what course to follow and most of its members have yet to be briefed on the latest 'need to know'  intelligence on Iran's nuclear program.


FSA (Free Syrian Army) figther in Alepo, Syria

 The horrific civil war in Syria is moving ever closer to Israel's northern border on the Golan Heights. IDF intelligence is on high alert monitoring any attempt by the Syrian Army to arm its chemical weapons or for the rebels, including Al Qaeda, to take control of them.  The British newspaper the Guardian has reported that Israel has asked for a green light from the U.S. to attack the chemical weapons if need be. This report appears to be out of date or inaccurate. In his final briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee, former Defense Minister Barak said: "We have decided to intercept any attempt by the Syrians to transfer strategic weapons systems (includes chemical weapons) to Hezbollah in Lebanon".

 Palestinian issue…

 Another key issue on the agenda will be the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Shortly before Obama's arrival, Netanyahu told the Knesset: "The new Israeli government is ready to make a historic compromise that would end the Palestinian conflict once and for all!"  However the composition of his coalition rules out any idea of Israel making more good-will gestures such as a new settlement freeze. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Avigdor Lieberman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee have both rejected such measures saying it's been tried before and the Palestinians never reciprocate. Obama has already lowered any expectations by saying he is not coming with any new peace plan. He will apparently leave that for Secretary of State John Kerry, who will arrive in town after the President flies back to Washington.

 Even without the sudden thaw in relations between Bibi and Barack, the U.S. President would have received an exceptionally cordial welcome in the Jewish state. Now he will be greeted like a rock star. There may be a small demo here or there by far Right settlers, but some 15,000 Israeli policemen will be on duty to make sure the trip goes as planned. The vast majority of Israelis admire Obama and what he stands for and they also know how much he has done for Israel.

 Remember this: In 2009, after the IDF operation 'Cast Lead' to halt the massive Hamas rocketing from Gaza of Israeli civilians, senior European leaders came to Jerusalem in a massive show of support for Israel and then Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicole Sarcosi all declared, in no uncertain terms, their support for Israel's right to self-defense and to exist peacefully. They were all on the same page. However they also declared their backing for an independent Palestinian state and the urgent need for a serious Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process to resolve the conflict. That is very likely to be U.S. President Barack Obama's message both in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

David Essing

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