Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Obama Administration vs. Prime Minister Netanyahu: Confrontation in the Making?

There is no peace partner for a "two state solution." If politicians would be capable, they would promote Gaza to be absorbed by Egypt and part of the West Bank by Jordan. Not a second Palestinian state between Jordan, the Palestinian state, and Israel. It is an obvious error to predicate the Iranian solution to a solution between Israel and Pals. It's the opposite: to solve the Israel-Pals problem, the Iranian regime must change its policy or itself.
 INSS Insight No. 108, May 17, 2009


A few months after coming into office, the strategic political approach of the new Obama administration towards Israel and the Palestinian issue is becoming clearer. Although it has not yet been fully solidified, this approach does not augur well for the Netanyahu government and the political positions it represents. While thus far the administration has not yet announced an official new peace plan, several recent utterances create a picture that might appear unfriendly, perhaps even threatening, from the perspective of the current Israeli government.

President Shimon Peres' recent visit to the United States, before the arrival of Prime Minister Netanyahu and of other heads of state from the region, is exceptional, at least in terms of diplomatic protocol. Beyond his status as the president of the State of Israel, Peres has a unique international standing. More than any other formal representative of Israel, he is seen as a political moderate and personally identified with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel probably intended thus to present Prime Minister Netanyahu as a leader truly seeking to promote the Middle East peace process. If the US administration were convinced that this message is authentic – so it was probably hoped in the Prime Minister's Office – Netanyahu would be granted the heartfelt and warm reception the administration bestows on its favorites. The US administration apparently identified this intention and chose not to cooperate with the plan. Instead, it tended to minimize the media attention and the visit's public impact.

A sequence of public utterances and media reports by fairly senior officials in the US administration, none of which was officially denied, also clearly indicates that a cloud is hovering over the relations between the two states, which might be flagrantly visible during Netanyahu's visit to the US and in his meetings with administration leaders, including President Obama:

1.    National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones has made it clear that the administration links its policy towards Iran and its nuclear advances to developments towards a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Netanyahu government will likely not endorse such linkage. Gen. Jones' previous appointment was Special Envoy for Middle East Security. His mission was to work out the security arrangements necessary for the "two states for two peoples" vision to materialize. According to many media reports, he wrote a report highly critical of Israel's positions and policies on the Palestinian issue and argued that Israel defines its security interests in a future two-state solution too broadly. According to Jones' report, these interests do not require Israeli military presence in the territories, as Israel holds. Instead, NATO forces can be deployed.

2.    The statement by the US that it expects Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: although similar statements have been sounded from various US officials in the past, now, especially considering the dialogue the Obama administration hopes to conduct with Iran, this statement is more worrisome. This position of the administration, if it is pursued more assertively, might legitimize to an extent Iran's claim that the issue of Iran's nuclear activity must be discussed in tandem with the Israeli nuclear option.

3.    President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, stated at the recent AIPAC convention that this is the moment of truth for Israel, that the two-state solution is the only solution and that the United States is committed to it, and that all parties to the conflict must fulfill their obligations, as difficult as that might be. This statement was made before a pro-Israel forum, after senior officials in Netanyahu's government have voiced explicit disagreement with the two-state vision, and after the prime minister deliberately avoided openly embracing this vision.

Various circumstances make it easier for President Obama to present Netanyahu with a tough and critical policy towards Israel. The conflict itself is in a sustained period of relative calm. This calm is attributed first and foremost to the deterrence Israel managed to achieve vis-à-vis Hamas through Operation Cast Lead. Beyond that, the activity of Israel's security forces throughout the West Bank largely paralyzes the capabilities of terrorist organizations. The US administration may thus try to undermine Israel's main argument, also expressed in its comments to the Roadmap, that it cannot make progress in the peace process as long as there is no calm in the field of security.

Moreover, there is clear improvement in the work of the Palestinian security apparatuses, especially those trained by Gen. Keith Dayton of the United States military. The security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during Operation Cast Lead, acknowledged by IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, gives the option of security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority much more strategic weight than before. The US administration can now claim, and with some justification, that if the two-state vision is implemented, the Palestinians will cooperate with Israel on an even broader level than at present against the extremist forces among the Palestinians.

In the area of domestic politics, President Obama has succeeded in reaching a stable and powerful status within the American political system. A considerable part of the Jewish community in the US supports him, as well as his political and economic moves. The president may thus conclude that it is time to put his fist on the table and put forward a clear American plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, even if it is not acceptable to Netanyahu's government. If indeed the president decides to act intensively to implement the two-state vision, he can expect broad international support for these efforts. The vast majority of international actors, especially in Europe, massively support the drive to promote the two-state solution.

Furthermore, President Obama can expect moderate Arab countries to "upgrade" the Arab League's peace plan (also known as the Arab Initiative), so that it could become more acceptable to Israel. Even in its present form it receives fairly wide support among Israelis. Formulations that are more palatable to Israel, especially on the issue of the right of return, would no doubt make it very attractive to large segments of Israeli public opinion. If Arab states show their willingness to cooperate with Israel on Iran in return for Israel's willingness to soften its position on the Arab Initiative, it is quite likely that the plan would become widely accepted by the Israeli public.

Finally, the US administration might speculate that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a fairly positive public image in Israel and commands a stable government. Precisely because he is perceived as a hawk, he has the ability to "make history" and lead Israel to a far-reaching settlement of the prolonged conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In any case, if there will be extremist factions in the Israeli governing coalition that are not able to accept such flexibility in Netanyahu's position, they will have to leave the government and would thus enable Netanyahu to form a new, broad and stable coalition predicated upon considerably more moderate positions, compared to the current government. This would be the administration's response to Netanyahu's possible claim that he cannot make progress on the Palestinian issue because of domestic political problems.

It is quite possible that President Obama's administration will choose to confront Prime Minister Netanyahu with positions that are incompatible with those hitherto stated by his government. If the president decides to use the means of influence and pressure at his disposal to convince Israel to accept his dictates, a possible Israeli-US confrontation of an unknown scale, intensity, and aftermath might ensue.

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