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Israel, Obama, & Iranian Bomb

Israeli observers: "President Obama could seek a package deal on Russia and Iran"

"Israeli-Palestinian conflict not likely to be top priority during Obama's first term"

"If elected, Bibi Netanyahu will try to work closely with Obama despite some hard-line positions taken by Likud members"

Barack Obama (photo: www.barackobama.com)

How will President-elect Barack Obama deal with the Iranian nuclear threat, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other Middle-East issues after he enters the White House on January 20th? Israeli officials and observers are considering the change of guard not only in Washington but also in Jerusalem, where latest polls indicate that the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu is gradually increasing his lead over Kadima's Tzipi Livni.

One thing at least appears certain to happen during President Barack Obama's first term in the White House - Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, if not stopped one way or the other. Even the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna now concurs. With the Jewish state at the top of President Ahmadinejad's hit list, this will obviously overshadow all else in Jerusalem's special relationship with Washington, no matter who is elected prime minister in the February 10th election. The next Israeli prime minister will want to reach a clear-cut understanding with Obama on how he perceives America's role in confronting the Iranian nuclear threat.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad

The Israeli view has been that the Iranians in general, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in particular, are masters of diplomatic deception - this they have proven for years in their stone-walling of European negotiators. However, IDF Major General Amos Yadlin, the chief of military intelligence, has stated that Obama's election may open a new opportunity to dissuade Tehran from continuing with its nuclear weapons program. The idea is that if Obama takes a tough stand in his negotiations with Tehran, the Iranians will understand it is not only the right-wing Bush administration which is unalterably opposed to an Iranian bomb. Moreover, the current global economic crisis and the drastic fall in oil prices are clobbering the shaky Iranian economy which has paid the price for Iran's military build- up and nuclear program with high unemployment and a low standard of living for most Iranians.

There are observers who believe that President Obama will choose a new international approach of multilateralism by building new alliances and departing from the go-it alone policies that characterized much of the Bush administration. If so, President Obama may be able to galvanize stiffer sanctions against Tehran. But on the other hand, past experience that has shown that multilateralism usually translates into pressure on Israel for more concessions. So, might Obama try to pay in 'Israeli coin' for a deal on Iran? Moreover, the Obama administration may be more reticent to use military force so it will try to evade the dilemma of whether or not to attack Iran.

Obama in footsteps of Sarkozy?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

On the other hand, Obama may reach the same conclusion as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has said the Bush policy of deploying missiles in Poland and the Czech-Republic, which has caused so much friction with Russia, is 'misguided'. If so, it might open the door to an understanding with Russia leading to Moscow's support for stiffer sanctions against Iran that are vital to halting Teheran's drive to acquire nuclear weapons. Clearly, the tension between the U.S.and Russia in Eastern Europe is detrimental to the diplomatic campaign against Iran. In any case, Obama will also have his hands full in coping with the economy at home as well as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are on the front burner of America's foreign policy agenda. But having said that, Obama and his Middle-East advisers are well aware that George Bush was taken to task for virtually ignoring the Israeli-Palestinian dispute during his first term.

As for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S can be expected to stick to the two-state solution now in progress and which has received strong international backing, although any success has been more on paper than on the ground. Obama might increase pressure on Israel for example, to remove illegal outposts and West Bank roadblocks that intersect terrorists, but also hinder Palestinian freedom of movement. This would be an initial Israeli contribution to boosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas standing with West Bank Palestinians. But again, Obama's approach of rebuilding bridges with the Europeans and Russia could also lead to greater international pressure on Israel contending that movement on the Palestinian track will facilitate action against Iran and elsewhere. What is also on the table now is the Saudi initiative that proffers Arab peace with Israel in return to a return to the 1967 borders. This is something that President Shimon Peres says has made a 'deep impression' on President-elect Obama.

Iran & Next U.S. Defense Secretary

Bibi Netanyahu

All the latest public opinion polls indicate that the Likud's Bibi Netanyahu is increasing his lead over Kadima's Tzipi Livni with Labor's Ehud Barak trailing far behind. The polls also show Netanyahu would probably have little trouble in forming a government coalition with the far-right and religious parties, although he has publicly declared his intention of trying to form a national unity government, presumably with Kadima and Labor. When first time around as Prime Minister, Netanyahu clashed with President Bill Clinton, whom he tried to circumvent via the U.S Congress. This time, if elected, Netanyahu is expected to seek the U.S president's closer cooperation and support. However, Netanyahu is convinced there is no viable Palestinian partner for the two-state solution in the foreseeable future - if anything, the rise of of Hamas has put the two -state solution out of sight. He proposes a different approach that of focusing on building up the Palestinian economy as the first step to giving the Palestinians in a stake to future peace making with Israel. The West Bank Palestinians publicly reject it as a total non-starter. The new Secretary of State is likely to work hand in glove with the President, this was not always the case between George Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Bush was one of Israel's greatest friends, the friendship of Hillary and Bill Clinton is also beyond question. However, keeping in mind that front-runner Bibi Netanyahu has left little doubt that he would be ready to bomb Iran's nuclear sites if need be, the opinion of the Defense Secretary in the Obama administration may be of even greater importance.

David Essing

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