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MIDEAST: Israel Slow to Recognise New U.S. Face

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, May 22 2009 (IPS) - A ballistic missile, an anti-missile defence system and the transfer of nuclear technology – three inter-related issues addressed on the same day this week highlight the radical re-adjustment in U.S. priorities as the Obama Administration demarcates a fresh strategic outlook for the Middle East.

In the northern Iranian city of Semnan, President Mahmoud Ahmadinedjad confirmed that Iran had successfully test-fired a new medium-range ballistic missile: the Sajjil-2 is believed capable of hitting targets in Israel, U.S. bases in the region, and also targets in southern Europe.

Iranian media describe the Sajjil-2 as a two-stage solid-fuel missile with a 2,000 kilometre range. Israeli defence experts say that the missile’s solid- fuel propulsion system would give Iran three advantages over its previous Shihab-3 class missiles: an additional 700 kilometre range that would allow launching from sites deep inside Iran, shorter preparation time required for launching, thus making it less vulnerable to counter-attack, and a reduction in warning time available to any country under attack.

The Iranian President made no direct link but analysts point out that the timing of the missile test could well have been intended as a signal to the U.S. President before a keynote address in Cairo in a fortnight’s time in which Barack Obama is slated to lay out his new Middle East strategy.

It is also probably not coincidental that confirmation came on Wednesday as well that the U.S. will continue funding development of the Arrow-3, the next-generation missile in Israel’s ballistic-missile defence system. The commitment came during the annual U.S.-Israeli strategic dialogue held at the Pentagon at the very time that Obama was hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House.

Last year, the U.S. had agreed to share half the 800 million dollar development costs of the Arrow-3, but in recent months there had been great concern within the Israeli defence establishment that cuts in the U.S. defence budget would affect funding for the Arrow project.

In a third announcement, the U.S. President gave the go-ahead for a controversial transfer of technology to the United Arab Emirates that would make it the first Arab nuclear state. The U.S. regards the UAE as one of its moderate Arab allies. Though the know-how will enable it to build a nuclear power plant to produce energy, not a bomb, it’s widely recognised that any country possessing civilian nuclear power technology makes the conversion to military purposes more feasible.

That is precisely the argument U.S. allies in the region – Israel and several Arab states – use to warn against Iranian nuclear activities that could perhaps allow it to develop nuclear weapon capability within a few years. At present, Israel is the only country in the Middle East thought to possess nuclear weapons.

Uzi Arad, Netanyahu’s national security advisor, speaking on Israel Radio Wednesday, countered domestic critics who argue that the Obama- Netanyahu meeting presages a real showdown in U.S.-Israeli relations: “Those who choose to see only confrontation with the U.S. on how to proceed on the Palestinian question ignore just how much common ground there is on the need to contain Iran.”

How the U.S. handles Iran’s nuclear quest is indeed the key question for the Netanyahu government. But, while Obama appears to be telling Israel that he will be sensitive to its security concerns, in playing down the gaping divide with the U.S. on Israeli-Palestinian peace-making, Israel seems to be missing the import of how far U.S. Middle East peace-making priorities have altered.

Successive presidents have long tried to put an effective Washington peace imprint on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But when the new man in the White House advises his Israeli visitor to “seize this historical opportunity”, what Israel is failing to grasp is that there might well have been an underlying addendum to that rather banal injunction about peace: ‘Don’t get in the way of the U.S. re-asserting itself in the region and gaining legitimacy for that revamped role,’ the president appeared to be cautioning.

Tangibly, Obama urged Netanyahu to address the thorny issue of settlements in the occupied Palestinian areas. His insistence went much further than what has been the customary U.S. caution that “settlements are an obstacle to peace”. Following up on the White House meeting there was a trenchant call from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Al-Jazeera Television: “We want to see a stop to settlement construction – addition, natural growth, any kind of settlement activity – this is what the President has called for.”

That the U.S. is breaking away from its traditionally soft approach to Israeli backsliding on past commitments to stop settlement activity couldn’t be clearer. Suddenly, Israel is facing not just worn-out formulas about how to create a better peace climate, but a real U.S. modus operandi.

Still, on returning home from Washington, Netanyahu showed little concern, insisting that not only Israel, but also the Palestinians and the whole Arab world will have to do their part to advance the prospects of peace. That posturing may stem in part from Netanyahu’s need to pacify ultra-nationalist elements in his restive coalition: it cannot, however, conceal what seems to be a wholly new U.S. approach to what part the peace process plays in U.S. strategic considerations.

What distinguishes this U.S. President’s engagement is that a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians is now defined not only as the interest of Israelis and Arabs but that it constitutes, in the words of special presidential envoy George Mitchell, “a national U.S. strategic interest”.

When the U.S. President will call – as he reportedly will in Cairo – for the creation of the Palestinian state “within four years”, the protracted time- frame is not merely conditioned by harsh realities on the ground. What the U.S. peace effort in-the-making seems aimed at bringing about is not so much peace per se, but a dramatic change in Middle East attitudes and perceptions towards the U.S.

Barack Obama doubtlessly cherishes the prospect of actually bringing an end to the Arab-Israel conflict. But, his immediate goal of fashioning a substantive change in U.S. role in the region – including the containment of Iran – is served not only by making peace, but by the very process of peace- making itself. That, for President Obama, constitutes “the historic opportunity”.

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