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MIDEAST: Netanyahu Up Against a New U.S.

Analysis by Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

JERUSALEM, May 20 2009 (IPS) - June 5 is a date that resonates powerfully in the troubled modern history of the Middle East. On that fateful day, 42 years ago, the seminal 1967 Arab-Israel war erupted. Six days later, Israel was in control of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Syria’s Golan Heights and all of the Palestinian territories.

Not only had the face of the region changed dramatically: henceforth, the U.S.-Israeli relationship would be the strategic linchpin of the region, a relationship that was to remain at the heart of the U.S. Middle East policy.

No longer.

June 4, 2009, could herald another seminal shift – the day when that relationship is no longer the pivot of all regional political developments. That stands out as potentially the most significant outcome of this week’s initial encounter between the new U.S. President and the new Israeli Prime Minister.

June 4 is certainly meant by President Barack Obama to stand out as a beacon that will reflect this dramatic shift in U.S. Middle East policy. From Cairo, in a fortnight’s time, Obama will lay down his Administration’s vision for the region. His visit to Egypt is geared to establishing a fundamental plank of that policy – the improvement of U.S. relations with both the Arab and Muslim worlds, as well as the relationship he envisages between both those worlds and Israel.

Pointedly, Israel is not on the Obama Middle East itinerary: over the past four decades, that was unheard of.


During Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s three-day stay in Washington, the Israeli guest heard from White House officials that before President Obama sets out on his Cairo trip, he would “welcome” concrete concessions to the Palestinians. That could include Israel easing its suffocating blockade of Gaza and its restrictions on the free movement of Palestinians in the West Bank.

One top U.S. official told the Israeli delegation that if Israel acted in this way it would ease the President’s attempt to persuade Arab states to begin a normalisation process with Israel, even in advance of a full-fledged Israeli- Palestinian peace.

Obama’s June 4 landmark address could well be Round 2 in the re-shaping of the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Round 1 was symbolised by the very public set-to in the Oval Office. For the bulk of their meeting the two leaders were on their own. But, from their lengthy statements afterwards in the full glare of the media, it was abundantly clear there was no meeting of minds.

The atmosphere was cordial enough. Compliments were exchanged. Like two boxers circling one another at the start of a bout few real blows were landed.

Obama made little effort to conceal the chasm between their different perceptions on how to proceed towards securing a more stable region. There were no trite sound-bites; this was a President determined to demark U.S. policy from previous positions – lined up solidly with Israeli concerns. Yaron Dekel, political analyst for Israeli Public Television, called it “a raw bout of strategic sparring”.

U.S. diplomat Aaron David Miller, who served as Middle East policy-maker in successive administrations, Democratic and Republican, in his book ‘The Much Too Promised Land’, quotes an angry former U.S. president Bill Clinton fuming after his first White House meeting with Netanyahu in 1996 about who was the superpower in the relationship: “Who the (expletive) does he think he is?” This time, for all Netanyahu’s apparent self-assurance, there was no mistaking the power, and which party was but that power’s ally.

The Israeli leader had gone into the meeting with a deconstructionist approach. He sought to elude the U.S. demand that he line up openly behind the two-state solution by arguing that should there be substantive steps towards peace, then the “terminology” will take care of itself. That cut little ice with a President intent on applying his own deconstructionist approach: re-shaping of the U.S. Middle East strategy through the re-shaping of relations with Israel.

Departing from four decades of positing Israel as the fulcrum of any broad Middle East strategy, Obama made plain that it is a fundamental U.S. interest not only to achieve Palestinian-Israeli peace, but still more basically to alter the way the U.S. is perceived by the Arab world as a result of that old strategy. A Palestinian-Israel peace must serve that purpose, the President seemed to be saying.

This translated to the tactical level: Obama showed little patience for Netanyahu’s call for equal concessions from Arabs and Israelis. The onus, said the President, is on Israel – to ease Gaza’s humanitarian plight and, above all, to freeze forthwith the whole Israeli settlement enterprise in the West Bank. That was underlined the next day in starker fashion still when Netanyahu heard the same blunt ‘end settlement building’ message in Congress, even from Israel’s traditional friends.

Since the Oval office meeting, Netanyahu has taken pains to moderate the impression of a confrontation in-the-making: he has been telling both his restive political allies and the Israeli public that he and the President see eye to eye on the need to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. To some extent, he might be right.

But, what Netanyahu isn’t admitting publicly is that on this score too, in the conception of the Obama Administration, Israel is on the sidelines. It is the President’s determination to talk Iran out of pursuing its nuclear military option that holds sway.

That puts Round 3 in the re-shaping of U.S.-Israeli relations just around the corner. It’s far too early to judge whether Netanyahu will have to ward off some fierce punches should his policy on the ground impair the U.S. peace- making effort.

Already, however, the U.S. is realigning itself. Israel will have to become accustomed to being downsized to the role of just one of the “key” U.S. allies in the region.

 
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