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MIDEAST: Netanyahu Out of Step With Obama

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, May 17 2009 (IPS) - A day before he enters what some Middle East analysts are calling not the Oval office but the lion’s den, Benjamin Netanyahu, re-incarnated as Israel’s leader, is determined not to be easy meat but also, on the other hand, not to become a bone in the throat of his host, President Barack Obama.

When he first took up a White House invitation 13 years ago, Netanyahu was flushed with his unexpected triumph over then president Bill Clinton’s ally, today’s Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

That was soon after the assassination of Israel’s peace-making prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who had been negotiating with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. What was then called the Oslo peace process had, in effect, enshrined today’s resuscitated principle – the “two-state solution”.

In 1996, Netanyahu spoke adamantly against the creation of a Palestinian state. Now, though more ambiguous, Netanyahu still refuses steadfastly to line up with the two-state solution. Not that he is any more enamoured of Palestine than he was back then – but his ambiguity stems from the fact that he is fully aware that he is walking Israel along a dangerous tight-rope.

Netanyahu insists it is not he who is out of step with the world – it is the world which out of sync with Middle East realities.

Back in 1996, Netanyahu brashly told the U.S. administrators that they, in effect, “needed to change their hard disk” and should rather plug in to his alternative hardware. That was encapsulated in his “reciprocity” maxim – if the Palestinians ‘give’ (that is, fight terror), they will ‘get’ (recognition).

The Israeli prime minister may have matured somewhat. The Netanyahu hard disk model 2009 is slightly more sophisticated, less arrogant. Still, he remains determined to show the new occupant of the White House that there is much to be learnt in the Middle East on the ground; he is again intent on correcting, through Washington, widespread “misconceptions” within the international community on how to go about peace-making.

Israeli diplomatic analyst Aluf Benn puts it starkly in Haaretz: “Despite the packaging difference, the content is similar. In 2009, as in 1996, Netanyahu wants to show that he can come to the White House, voice tough stances from his days on the campaign trail, and yet remain in one piece.”

The similarities between 1996 and 2009 go further: as in Clinton’s time, Netanyahu is being hosted by a president intent on accelerating the peace process. As in the Netanyahu I era, the Israeli leader will retort by cautioning the president against putting his foot too hard down on the accelerator.

“Reciprocity 2009” would involve Israel being prepared conditionally to countenance the creation of a Palestinian state, but only if first the Palestinians recognise Israel as the Jewish people’s nation-state. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who will be the Obama guest at the end of the month, says it’s simply not the Palestinians’ business how Israel chooses to define itself.

Obama is likely to give Netanyahu short shrift on his Jewish state demand. But, there is a major difference between Netanyahu-Clinton and Netanyahu- Obama, which the new U.S. President will not be able to ignore: Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Both Obama and Netanyahu agree on one substantive thing, the existence of a clear-cut link between the two critical questions – the future of a free Palestine and the future of the region free from the threat of a potentially nuclear Iran.

While Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has made it categorically clear that if Israel wants the U.S. to be able to handle the Iranian challenge successfully, Netanyahu must be prepared “to give” on Palestine, the Israeli leader counters that he can think of moving on Palestine only after the Iranian threat has been neutralised. Bolstered by what he says he heard last week in meetings with Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Netanyahu insists Iran is the prevailing regional concern.

Bill Clinton never liked Netanyahu personally, nor his outlook. For all that strain, nonetheless, he managed to prod a reluctant Netanyahu into signing two agreements with Arafat – the Hebron agreement and the Wye River Memorandum. Small wonder these advances have little echo today – they amounted to very little: even the minimal amount of territorial control that the Palestinians gained within the context of these accords was erased when, just a couple of years later, Israel quenched the Palestinian Intifadah uprising.

The lesson from that is clear: if Obama is indeed determined to make Netanyahu budge, it will have to be for something far more meaningful – like a total freeze of Israeli settlement activity as a prelude to the creation of the Palestinian state.

But, determined as he may be, the U.S. President will still be obliged to face up to what even critics of Netanyahu recognise is of broad regional concern – Iran’s nuclear quest.

Barack Obama’s success in turning Netanyahu on Palestine may well depend on his ability to guarantee to the Israeli leader that he will be as successful in turning Iran on its nuclear project – one way or another. But, that it is not at all a question of which of these two critical challenges ought to take precedence since they both, in the Obama outlook, need to be addressed head-on, at one and the same time.

This equation is the true Obama Middle East test.

Should the U.S. President come through it successfully, Netanyahu would truly find himself out of step – and out of excuses – for not proceeding on Palestine. He would then find it extremely difficult to stand in the way of a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli peace which has been defined by the White House as a “national American interest”.

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