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Edition 19 Volume 7 - May 21, 2009

US-Israel: the months ahead

Obama offers little new  - Ali Abunimah
Netanyahu has little to lose by embarking on another "peace process" after making a show of resisting American pressure.

Obama's Scandinavian impatience  - Hanne Foighel
In certain EU circles there is a feeling that the Obama administration is prepared to put pressure behind its demands on Israel.

After the summit  - Ellen Laipson
Obama is thinking strategically about how to reset the agenda for the region.

An alliance revisited?  - Alon Pinkas
There is a reasonable chance that Israel and the US are headed toward another showdown.

Obama offers little new
 Ali Abunimah

Seldom has an encounter between American and Israeli leaders been as hyped as this week's meeting between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. As expected, Obama committed himself to diplomacy with Iran and pledged an enormous effort to achieve a two-state solution. Netanyahu continued to incite confrontation with Iran and refused to commit himself to a Palestinian state.

On the surface it may seem there are real differences and that the forces arrayed on each side--including the formidable Israel lobby--are gearing up for an epic battle to determine the fate of US-Israeli relations.

But Obama offered little new, reaffirming well-worn US positions that view Palestinians, particularly Hamas, as the aggressors, and Israel as the innocent victim. While calling for Israel to halt settlement construction (as US presidents have done for decades), Obama offered no hint that he would back those words with action. Quite the contrary, the president said he would urge Arab leaders to normalize relations with Israel, rewarding it in advance of any renewed peace talks.

Let us assume for the sake of argument that Obama applies unprecedented pressure to force Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians. What would such a deal look like? The outlines were suggested in the recent report sent to Obama by a group of US elder statesmen headed by former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft. The document, warning that there was only a "six to twelve month window" before all chances for peace evaporated, called on the US to forcefully advocate the creation of a Palestinian state. But this would be a demilitarized truncated state "based on" the 1967 borders. Israel would annex large West Bank settlements and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees. This "state" would be occupied indefinitely by a NATO-led "multinational force," which the Scowcroft group suggests could also include Israeli soldiers.

Of course the Scowcroft proposal does not necessarily represent Obama administration thinking, but it expresses the pervasive peace process industry consensus that views such an outcome as "reasonable," "pragmatic" and all but inevitable, and it accords with Obama's own statements opposing the right of return and supporting Israel's demand to be recognized as a "Jewish state".

In other words, what the vast majority of Palestinians would view as a horrifying plan to legitimize their dispossession, grant Israel a perpetual license to be racist and turn the apartheid regime set up by the Oslo accords into a permanent prison, is now viewed as bold and far-reaching thinking that threatens to rupture American-Israeli bonds.

Netanyahu has little to lose by embarking on another "peace process" after making a show of resisting American pressure (or extracting more American concessions or money). He knows the chances of ever getting to the stated destination are nil. Obama will not apply significant pressure, and even if he did, it is unclear on whom he would apply it, since on the Palestinian side there are no leaders ready, willing and able to carry off a second Oslo-style fraud against their people.

Obama reportedly believes peace in Palestine is the key to transforming US relations with the "Muslim world". If he were serious about this, the United States would have to break with all its past policies and support peace based on democratic and universal human rights principles and equality--something incompatible with a commitment to Israel as a "Jewish state" practicing legalized discrimination. All the signs are, however, that the Obama administration will push to try to force Palestinians and Arabs to accept and normalize with Israel as it is and that the US will continue to underwrite a morally and politically bankrupt Zionist settler-colonial project with a permanent American military, economic and diplomatic bailout.

The real problem for US-Israel relations is not to be found in whether Netanyahu utters the magic words "two-state solution". Rather it is that after Gaza it is impossible to keep peddling the fiction that Israel is a brave, self-reliant liberal democracy deserving of unconditional support. No matter what this administration does, this will eventually result in pressure on Israel, such as growing American public support for the global boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.- Published 21/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of "One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse".

Obama's Scandinavian impatience
 Hanne Foighel

The other day a young Dane called me. An eighth grade student, he was writing on the solution to the Middle East conflict, he told me, and could I please help him clear a few murky points.

I am a great believer in students doing their own homework and not only parroting "experts", so I asked the young gentleman to present me with his analysis and only then pose his questions.

The boy had both studied and understood that there were problems to be solved over the West Bank, ownership of water, settlements, Jerusalem and the refugee situation. I complimented him.

We then spoke about the current problems of the new US president, the new Israeli government, the uncertainties about the future Palestinian government and the fears each side has of the moves of the other.

When I cited to him the Israeli claim that each centimeter of occupied land given up would be used for rocket attacks just as had happened in Gaza, the young student interrupted and asked rhetorically: but if Israel withdrew from the occupied territories there would be peace, wouldn't there?

The simple assumption that if there were no more occupation, a peace agreement would be imminent and peace would break out is very typical of the Scandinavian understanding of the conflict. A Danish politician a few years ago wrote a comment under the title "How difficult can it be?" wondering aloud how come the parties "just don't sit down and solve the problems".

Indeed, how is it going now with the sitting down and agreeing on the small print, be it Binyamin Netanyahu with his coalition partners, Fateh with Hamas, Fateh's old guard with Fateh's young guard and the members of the Arab League among themselves, not to mention the Israeli and the Palestinian side?

No matter what one otherwise might think of the Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, one cannot but compare him to the little boy in the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale "The Emperor's New Clothes". When Lieberman says, "For 16 years the so-called peace process has not brought any solution to the conflict", he is like that small boy shouting, "the emperor is naked".

Lieberman has offered his suggestions for alternative solutions but rumors have it that Netanyahu has told him to shut up until the official policy of the Israeli government has been presented--and possibly amended--after Netanyahu's recent visit to Washington.

The big question hovering over the situation is what path US President Barack Obama will choose to walk. No one should doubt that Obama has some of the Scandinavian impatience in his approach to the conflict. He wants things to move forward toward a two-state-solution. Now.

In the last weeks, several members of his administration including Vice President Joseph Biden have outlined details of the president's vision. At an AIPAC meeting, Biden demanded a complete end to Israeli settlement building, immediate dismantling of the so-called illegal settlement outposts that even Ariel Sharon promised George W. Bush to dismantle but never did, and freedom of movement and economic opportunity for the Palestinians in the West Bank.

Just a few days before the Netanyahu visit, an Israeli newspaper ran a story about Obama having sent envoys to Jerusalem to explain clearly to the Israeli government that Washington expects Israel not to attack any target in Iran whatsoever and not to disrupt the American effort to hold a serious dialogue with the Islamic Republic.

In certain EU circles there is a feeling that the Obama administration is prepared to put pressure behind its demands on Israel. Some believe that Washington is thinking of using economic pressure to make the Netanyahu government understand just how urgent Obama views these matters.

It will take some time until the bits and pieces leaked from the private meeting between Obama and Netanyahu make it to the public. And even then it might take a while before a clear picture of just what Obama demanded and what Netanyahu answered will emerge.

In the longer term, the question is whether President Obama will be able to keep up the pressure he seems to want to apply both to Israel and the Palestinians, or whether he will end up feeling, as did a number of his predecessors, that he should have stayed far away from the Middle East beehive.- Published 21/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hanne Foighel is a correspondent for the Danish newspaper Politiken.

After the summit
 Ellen Laipson

There's a sigh of relief that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it through their first official meeting with no apparent harm done to US-Israel comity. But their careful language about shared threat perceptions and deep historic ties does little to disguise the obvious: there are interesting and difficult challenges ahead as Israel and America, separately and together, approach the enduring quest for peace and security in the Middle East.

First, the two leaders are in different places politically. Obama enjoys enormous popularity and legitimacy at home and abroad. He is at the beginning of his presidency and is buoyed by good will from many flanks despite the gravity of the world economic crisis for which he has special leadership responsibilities. Netanyahu is no novice to his job, and voters in Israel and observers outside Israel are far more cynical about his capacity to be a positive agent for change. He himself is likely to be more focused on keeping his unruly coalition together and will be more tactical in his thinking than Obama.

Second, there's the well-trodden ground of whether they actually share a vision for a two-state solution. Obama, accepting the accumulated wisdom of American experts, thinks of an independent Palestine as a positive and desirable outcome; for Netanyahu it's perhaps one of the less bad options, but around him are political partners who quite passionately oppose it. There are clearly divergent views about how much effort to put into improving Palestinian morale, building Palestinian capacity for governance and security and demonstrating respect for Palestinian identity. The Israeli leader seems to think that more flexibility on economic transactions, including trade and employment, is the right amount of attention. For the United States, that's only a piece of a larger set of initiatives and activities.

Third is the dilemma of what to do about Iran. Obama has set some ambitious goals for his administration and is open to a very different way of doing business with Iran. He's trying to change the tone and the underlying psychology of the long-standing antagonistic relationship. He wants Iran's leadership to believe that a more productive interaction with Washington is possible--one that would have economic, social and security benefits for Iran and would defuse tensions in the region, to the benefit of all.

Israel is coming from a very different place: its leadership does not see Iran as a normal country but as an existential threat. The notion that Obama is willing to take risks and to attempt to build trust with Tehran is quite outside mainstream political thinking in Jerusalem (although a few independent intellectuals can still envision a return to normal state-to-state relations between Israel and Iran).

Washington and Jerusalem have had countless exchanges of information, intelligence and policy ideas on Iran's nuclear program. But Netanyahu and Israel's supporters are concerned that Obama is embarked on a divergent path that could include a deal on Iran's enrichment activities, putting the two countries on different sides of the line of what is acceptable.

A last and more philosophical issue is Obama's commitment to improve America's engagement with the Muslim world. His upcoming speech in Cairo will surely lay out a positive vision of a multicultural world of tolerance and mutual respect. Obama embodies an openness of mind and spirit about coexistence. Americans have high hopes for his ability to help repair the damage done during the Bush era to America's reputation and to reverse the perception that the war on terror is in fact a war against Islam.

One senses that the mood in Israel is quite different; Israelis are disheartened and despairing of ever achieving normal relations with their Arab and Muslim neighbors, and seek assurances from their American partner and patron that our security policies will take into account this deep sense of vulnerability. But some will see Israel's predicament as one that only Israel can resolve. The fact that Israeli Arabs, long seen as the quiet beneficiaries of life in a vibrant democracy, tell pollsters of their deep alienation, is disturbing. It is part of a larger piece of Israel's enduring failure to make coexistence possible and desirable for the Arabs. This is a very local process, less susceptible to outside influence or direction.

Most of the pundits think the first Obama-Netanyahu visit went just fine, with Obama doing what he needed to do on settlements and Netanyahu making clear his expectations that the overture to Iran be limited or bound in time. But it's important to not be distracted by a fairly superficial reading of the situation: Obama is thinking strategically about how to reset the agenda for the region. He sees the connectedness of issues in a positive-sum way. Israel's leaders should be listening carefully.- Published 21/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ellen Laipson is president and CEO of The Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. She was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council from 1997 to 2002.

An alliance revisited?
 Alon Pinkas

For over three decades, Israeli political, military, academic and media circles have tended to view US-Israel relations as some form of a strategic alliance. This self-image is based on a combination of shared values, a natural affinity between democracies, a by-and-large similar geo-political outlook, a commonality of interests and most importantly, what Yossi Alpher has termed a "strategic triangle" consisting of the US, Israel and the political power and clout of American Jews.

Conveniently forgetting or dismissing earlier American administrations' coolness toward Israel and their political-realism-based approaches to the Middle East, these Israeli circles regard American friendship with Israel as a central pillar of Israel's national security and a regional deterrent and force multiplier. They have even proudly defined Israel as nothing less than a political and military "strategic asset" to American foreign policy, both in the context of the Cold War and within the geo-political confines of the Middle East. The evolution and shaping of relations between the US and Israel in the last 40 years renders this general characterization viable and fairly accurate.

This was not the case in earlier years. After President Truman's unenthusiastic recognition of Israel in 1948, Eisenhower exhibited disinterest while attempting to forge regional alliances with Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt, and was angry about Israel's collusion with France and Britain in the Suez war in 1956. Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to lure Nasser's Egypt into the US orbit in 1962-63.

But after the 1967 Six-Day War and Johnson's decision to sell Israel offensive military platforms such as Patton tanks and Skyhawk and F-4 Phantom jets (all in the context of a patron-client relationship opposing Soviet mentorship of Egypt and Syria), the pro-Israel tide gelled irreversibly. Nixon's policy--supported by generous grants--of rehabilitating the Israeli military after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and further diplomatic and military-related commitments by successive administrations ever since, have shaped the contours and contents of the US-Israel relationship as it evolved into an informal, non-treaty alliance. America consciously sacrificed broader regional interests as it invested in forging that alliance.

If there ever was a serious debate within the American foreign-policy and decision-influencing establishment regarding America's interests in the Middle East and the implications they have on US support for Israel, it ended resoundingly and unequivocally in Israel's favor. Now the question is: are these relations deep, solid, strong and durable enough to sustain what appears to be a reexamination and possibly an overhaul of US foreign policy in the region? Do such changes in priorities and a redefinition of interests necessarily mean a weakening of the US-Israel alliance, a transformation of the tenets of the "special relationship" or, conversely, do they hold the promise and potential of improving relations in the long run?

A content analysis of President Barack Obama's rhetoric after his recent meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and previous references he and senior members of his administration made about Israel and the Middle East peace process reveals that on the surface nothing significant has changed in tone or substance. The US and Israel are "allies", whose friendship is "unshakable" thanks to "unwavering" US support that remains "committed" to ensuring Israel's security. But while it is premature to describe Obama's ideas on the Middle East as a coherent and detailed "plan" (his scheduled speech in Cairo on June 4 may provide a better understanding of American principles and ideas for the next few years), Israelis who follow Washington politics have discerned a point of inflection. It is unclear if this is merely a change of style, a reprioritization of American interests or really substantive policy revisions.

America and Israel have had their differences and periodic confrontations before, most notably the Suez crisis of 1956, President Ford's "reassessment" of US policy following Henry Kissinger's failed mission in March 1975 while mediating an Israeli-Egyptian interim agreement in the Sinai and President H. W. Bush's decision to withhold loan guarantees to Israel in response to Prime Minister Shamir's intransigence over settlements in 1991. Moreover, the US has repeatedly described Israeli settlements in the West Bank (and Gaza) as an "obstacle to peace" (a point Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeatedly made in the last few days) and has had disagreements with Israel over its peace policies.

If Obama displays in the realm of foreign policy in general, and in the Middle East in particular, the same frenzy of activity that he has demonstrated in domestic policy--highlighted by "change" and a sharp departure from the policies of George W. Bush--then there is a reasonable chance that Israel and the US are headed toward another showdown. Right now it looks as if US-Israel relations may be remodeled as a throwback to the Reagan (and Secretary of State George Shultz) days of 1982-1988: Israel is an ally, but not the only one. The US supports Israel fundamentally and visibly but it has broader interests in improving its relations with the Muslim and Arab world. The US will present a comprehensive peace plan after years of impasse. The US perceives a nuclear Iran to be a regional danger and destabilizing agent, yet Pakistan is the more imminent challenge. The US is attentive and committed to Israel's security concerns and needs, but Israel can no longer drag its feet and must take tangible steps on the Palestinian issue, including a commitment to the idea of an ultimate two-state solution.

Relations may very well be strong enough to endure a major disagreement, but assuming Obama persists and pushes, Israel will be required to calibrate its own policies and make adjustments compatible with US interests--if not for the sake of peace, then at least for the sake of preserving the alliance.- Published 21/5/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Alon Pinkas is president of the US-Israel Institute at the Rabin Center and former consul-general of Israel in New York.

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