US-Israel Balance Echoes Tensions of 1991

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama in Washington Monday, amid speculation that their two administrations may be heading for a confrontation worse than any they have known since 1991-92.

In 1991, as today, the U.S. president was determined to bring Israel into peace talks with the Arabs on the basis of "land for peace" deals in the West Bank and the other Israeli-occupied lands. Then, as now, Israel was ruled by a Likud prime minister deeply opposed to ceding any power in the occupied West Bank to the Palestinians.

Then as now, officials in both Washington and Israel were also concerned with another big threat from elsewhere in the region, whose presence strongly colored their Arab-Israeli diplomacy. In 1991, it was Iraq; today, it is Iran.

There are, of course, other differences between the situations in 1991 and today. But the political jujitsu the U.S. and Israeli leaders pursued in 1991 offers lessons for what we may expect in the weeks and months to come.

Already, in advance of Monday’s meeting, each government has launched a few warning shots across the other’s bow. Netanyahu said he cannot start to deal with the Palestinian issue until after he feels certain that Washington has a foolproof plan to deal with Iran.

He has also, thus far, steadfastly refused to express any support for the "two-state" solution that Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, has defined as the goal between Israelis and Palestinians.

For his part, Obama has stated clearly that the U.S. has its own strong interest in seeing a Palestinian-Israeli peace. That implies that this time – unlike over the previous 16 years – Washington will not allow Israel to dictate the pace and agenda in the negotiations.

Obama and his officials have also spelled out that a Palestinian state must be established in the West Bank and Gaza. And Israel must, they said, make good on the promises it has already made several times, including at the Annapolis peace meet in November 2007, to freeze the construction of new settlement housing.

Despite those promises, building in the settlements continues apace. But thus far, neither the president nor Congress has established any firm linkage between Israel’s compliance with the freeze promise and the extremely generous aid, in many forms, that Washington gives it.

Also, though Obama moved rapidly after his inauguration to name former Senate majority leader George Mitchell as his envoy for Israeli-Arab peace, so far neither man has announced any concrete plan for restarting the peace talks.

Back in the summer and fall of 1991, the situation was very similar. President George H.W. Bush also worked hard to get Israel to freeze settlement construction, and Likud premier Yitzhak Shamir stubbornly resisted those pleas.

At that point, Bush and his secretary of state, James A. Baker III, decided to play hardball. Baker went to Congress and explained why a successful peace negotiation was in the U.S. interest, and why an Israeli settlement freeze was essential to that. He asked for, and won, agreement that the U.S. should directly link the amount of loan guarantees it gave Israel to Israel’s spending on the settlements.

Inside Israel, the view grew that Shamir was an obstacle to the good relations with Washington that most Israelis recognize their nation needs. In elections held in June 1992, Shamir’s Likud Party was roundly defeated by the more pro-peace Labor Party. In the U.S., Bush also faced an election in 1992. He, like Shamir, lost his election. But different players in Washington gave intriguingly different explanations of his loss.

Most U.S. voters recall that it was Bill Clinton’s stress on "it’s the economy, stupid" that ensured his victory in 1992. But a small group of influential insiders reportedly persuaded both Clinton and later, the younger George Bush, who followed him as president, that the elder Bush’s insistence on playing political hardball with Israel had contributed strongly to his 1992 defeat.

Several accounts indicate that that impression helped persuade both Clinton and the younger Bush to avoid getting into any open confrontation with the government in power in Israel, and therefore to let Israel set the pace in any peace talks.

Obama has notably broken with those two immediate precedents and seems set on pursuing the older Bush’s more hard-nosed and "realist" approach to Israel. He has some compelling reasons to do so.

The most important is the 140,000-person deployment the U.S. military now has in one Arab country, Iraq. Those troops are, moreover, reliant on lengthy supply lines, many of which run through other Arab countries. The eruption of another full-blown Palestinian-Israeli crisis could place those U.S. lives at risk. (So could the launching, by either Israel or the U.S., of an act of war against Iran.)

Also, after running a very troubled occupation in Iraq for six years, the U.S. has a much deeper and more vivid understanding of the practice of "military occupation" than it did in 1991. Officials have seen that such an occupation cannot be maintained indefinitely – and that ending it often involves dealing with people who were formerly your sworn enemies.

Attitudes toward Israel amongst the U.S. public generally, and among Jewish Americans, have evolved significantly since 1991.

During last year’s election, some pro-Likud groups and networks in the U.S. campaigned harshly against Obama. But he still won a majority inside the Jewish community that was even greater than the one he won from the electorate as a whole.

Inside the Jewish community, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), whose work closely follows the priorities of the government in power in Israel, for many years easily dominated the lobbying agenda. AIPAC remains strong. But now, several other Jewish-American organizations are directly – and with increasing effectiveness – challenging its monopoly from the pro-peace side.

Within Congress, once a staunch bastion of AIPAC influence, Rep. William Delahunt now has 103 co-sponsors for a key "sense of the House" resolution that expresses support for the two-state solution, and for Mitchell.

Within two weeks after his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama will be receiving Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and interim Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the White House. He will also travel to Egypt on June 4 to make his long-awaited speech "to the Muslim world."

Somewhere along the way there – or shortly after the Cairo speech – Obama will almost certainly have to reveal what it is, exactly, that he plans to do to win Arab-Israeli peace.

Might this involve, as it did in 1991, the White House going mano-a-mano with a Likud government in Israel? If it did, how would this tussle between the world’s one hyperpower and the Middle East’s strongest (though still small) power work out?

M.J. Rosenberg, the Washington director of the pro-peace Israel Policy Forum, has a clear answer. "If Obama holds firm, it will not be Obama who blinks," he recently wrote, adding that "American Jews will rally behind him."

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at