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US-ISRAEL: Storm Clouds Ahead?

Analysis by Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 2009 (IPS) - After eight years of the closest possible relations, the United States and Israel may be headed for a period of increasing strain, particularly given the likelihood that whatever Israeli government emerges from last week's election will be more hawkish than its predecessor.

While Iran, with which Barack Obama has pledged to engage in a "constructive dialogue", and the future of its nuclear programme will no doubt serve as the greatest source of tension between the two allies, the new president's commitment to achieving real progress on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict may also provoke serious friction, particularly if a re-unified Arab League launches a major new push for its 2002 peace plan.

Last week's election produced a clear majority for right-wing parties led by the Likud Party of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly declared his opposition to a settlement freeze, territorial concessions, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

Even if the more-centrist Kadima leader, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, can patch together a government of national unity, the right-wing parties will be able to effectively block major concessions in any peace talks, in the absence of any external pressure.

"Given the philosophical differences between Kadima and Likud on peace issues, such a unity government would be hard-pressed to make the historic decisions needed to reach a deal with the Palestinians," wrote former U.S. Mideast peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, in the Jewish 'Forward' this week.

But Obama and his Mideast special envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell, may indeed be willing to exert pressure on Israel – among other things, by tabling their own views about a final peace agreement and how precisely it might be achieved – especially if ongoing Arab efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah in a new coalition government succeed.

If all goes well on that front, the Arab League, fortified by a developing rapprochement between Syria and Saudi Arabia, could announce the latest version of its 2002 peace plan at next month's summit in Doha, according to Marc Lynch, a George Washington University specialist on Arab politics. Such a move "could galvanize the situation and put the onus on whatever Israeli government emerges to respond positively," he wrote on his widely read blog on the 'Foreign Policy' website this week.

"If you have a unified Palestinian government and a unified Arab move for peace," added Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, "then it's much more likely that Obama will step up his own efforts – ideally, working with an Israeli government that's ready to go along with a serious peace process, but, if not, being willing to make his disagreement (with that government) known."

The result could be a serious test between the next Israeli government and its influential advocates here and an administration which clearly believes that real progress toward resolving the 60-year-old conflict is critical both to restoring Washington's credibility among the Arab states and curbing the further radicalisation of the region's population, particularly in the wake of Israel's recent military offensive in Gaza.

A more likely source of tension between the U.S. and Israel, however, will be Iran's nuclear programme.

"It's very important to realise that Iran is going to be the most likely issue on which Israel and the United States will have a serious difference of opinion, if not a confrontation, in the next year," warned former U.S. Amb. Samuel Lewis after the election last week.

Although Netanyahu has been the most outspoken, virtually the entire Israeli political and military establishment has described Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions as an "existential" threat to the Jewish state and suggested that Israel should be prepared to unilaterally attack Tehran's key nuclear facilities as early as within the next year if it cannot persuade Washington to do so.

Already last year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked President George W. Bush for bunker-busting bombs, refueling capacity and permission to fly over Iraq for an attack on Iran, according to a new book by New York Times correspondent David Sanger, entitled "Inheritance".

That request was strongly opposed by Pentagon chief Robert Gates, who has been retained by Obama, and ultimately rejected by Bush. According to Bush's former top Middle East aide, Elliott Abrams, Bush – who almost never denied the Israelis anything – was worried that any attack on Iran risked destabilising Iraq.

While the violence in Iraq has continued to decline, U.S. military commanders insist that stability there remains "fragile", so that Bush's concerns about the implications for Iraq of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran are likely to be shared by Obama.

Even more important, however, is the new administration's conviction that Afghanistan and Pakistan – which, like Iraq, also border Iran – constitute the true "central front in the war on terror", an assessment backed up by Obama's announcement this week that he will deploy 17,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan over the next few months, bringing total U.S. and NATO troop strength there to some 80,000.

Top U.S. civilian and military officials dealing with "AfPak", as the new administration has dubbed the two countries, have made clear that they hope to enlist Iran, with which Washington cooperated in ousting the Taliban in 2001, in helping to stabilise Afghanistan.

''It is absolutely clear that Iran plays an important role in Afghanistan," Obama's special "Afpak" envoy, Amb. Richard Holbrooke, said in Kabul earlier this week in an interview during which he pointedly declined to repeat Bush administration charges that Tehran was aiding the Taliban. "(Iran has) a legitimate role to play in this region, as do all of Afghanistan's neighbours," he insisted.

Most regional specialists, including Bruce Riedel, who co-chairs the White House's "AfPak" policy review, and John Brennan, Obama's top counter-terrorism adviser, have long argued that Iran's cooperation would make Washington's effort to stabilise the region and ultimately defeat al Qaeda markedly easier while, conversely, its active opposition, as in Iraq, is likely to make the task considerably more difficult.

That assessment has, if anything, gained strength in just the past few weeks as Washington has scrambled to secure new supply lines into land-locked Afghanistan after a key bridge in Pakistan's Khyber Pass was destroyed by Taliban militants there and Kyrgyzstan threatened to end Washington's access to its Manas air base.

While U.S. efforts to compensate have focused so far on the overland route through Russia and the Central Asian "Stans", a growing number of voices have noted that a much less costly and more efficient alternative route would run from Iran's southern ports into western Afghanistan.

Although Tehran would no doubt be very reluctant to permit the U.S. military to use its territory at this point, NATO's supreme commander, U.S. Gen. John Craddock, said earlier this month that he had no objection if other NATO members could negotiate an access agreement with Iran.

Of course, it is not yet clear whether U.S. success in "AfPak" – and Iran's possible role in securing it – will help trump Washington's concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

But the clear priority stabilising Southwest Asia is being given by the new administration and the abrupt change in the rhetoric emanating from Washington about Iran – not to mention abiding concerns regarding Iran's ability to de-stabilise Iraq – clearly run counter to Israel's efforts to depict Tehran's nuclear programme as, in Netanyahu's words, "the greatest challenge facing the leaders of the 21st century…" And it will surely make it more difficult for him or anyone else in the next Israeli government to "harness the U.S. administration to stop the threat".

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

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