Obama and Netanyahu Still Tussling over Priorities

As world leaders prepare to gather here for the all-star "general debate" at the U.N. General Assembly on Sep. 23, two of them — U.S. Pres. Barack Obama and Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu — are still tussling over whether to prioritize their anti-Iran campaign or the push for a Palestinian-Israeli peace.

In recent days, there have been big developments in both areas. On Sep. 11, the Obama administration announced that it will take part, along with the other members of the "P5+1" group, in a major round of nuclear talks with Iran scheduled for Oct. 1.

Then on Tuesday, Judge Richard Goldstone presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council a painstakingly investigated report that accused both Israel and some Palestinian armed groups of having committed war crimes during Israel’s assault on Gaza last winter.

That development, along with Netanyahu’s recent announcement of yet more housing starts for West Bank settlers, increased the international pressure on Obama to announce long-awaited new steps in the Palestinian-Israeli peace diplomacy.

Obama and his special envoy, George Mitchell, have both vowed — ever since Obama’s first days in office, in January — to work hard to secure a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians that involves establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

But Obama and Mitchell have been notably tight-lipped about the details, and even the timetable, of how they will achieve that. This has led to some speculation that Obama will announce a new diplomatic initiative when, or soon after, he addresses the General Assembly Sep. 23.

Most Israeli governments of recent years, however, have argued that peace diplomacy with the Palestinians should take a determinedly back seat to the effort — which they hope will be spearheaded by the U.S. — to strip Iran of any possibility it could ever develop the technical know-how to produce nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have argued that they need to see the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons decisively averted before Israel can feel secure enough to even consider making peace with the Palestinians.

The Israelis’ arguments about the primacy of confronting Iran have been echoed by many right-wing and pro-Israeli forces inside the U.S. political elite. For example, advocacy of tough action against Iran has become a major organizing and fundraising theme for the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AIPAC.

Iranian officials argue strongly that their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. They note that Iran, unlike Israel, is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and that Israel already has a fearsome, though still clandestine, nuclear arsenal.

Since Obama was inaugurated, he has taken a tack notably different from Israel’s on the relationship between the anti-Iran campaign and Israel-Palestinian peace diplomacy. He has argued that concluding a solid peace between Israelis and Palestinians is desirable both for its own sake and also because it will make it easier for the U.S. to subsequently build a strong international coalition against Iran.

In other words, peacemaking first, and then — if it is still necessary — confront Iran.

In recent days, Obama has taken a number of steps that indicate that he anyway judges the possibility of Iran acquiring an advanced capability to make and deliver nuclear weapons to be smaller than former president George W. Bush judged it to be.

He took that decision to respond positively to Tehran’s invitation to go to the Oct. 1 meeting, along with the other P5+1 governments — China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany.

On Thursday, he also announced a decision to reduce the scope of the anti-missile system the Bush administration planned to build in Eastern Europe. The mission of the original Bush project was to intercept long-range missiles, possibly including nuclear-tipped ones, that Iran might send over Eastern Europe against targets in the United States.

Obama has moved carefully, if slowly, toward trying to deflect the pressures that Israel and its allies have exerted on him to step up his confrontation against Iran.

But those who urged decisive and speedy action in the peace diplomacy have also been disappointed.

In his first days in office, Obama acted fast to spell out his vision of a final Palestinian-Israeli peace in an interview with a respected Arabic-language television station, Al-Arabiya. Later, in live speeches in Ankara and Cairo, he elaborated on that theme with audiences containing hundreds of Middle Eastern Muslims.

Since January, Mitchell has undertaken five or six very low-key "listening trips" to the Middle East, and Obama and all members of his team repeatedly called on Israel to halt all construction in the settlements in the occupied West Bank — including East Jerusalem.

But the administration has undertaken no visible policy steps at all towards securing either the construction halt or, more importantly, the final peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. Instead, Mitchell got into a lengthy, inconclusive, and quite diversionary negotiation with Netanyahu on defining some limits — far short of a total freeze — on Israel’s construction in the settlements.

Netanyahu has publicly embarrassed Obama by announcing several rounds of new housing starts in the settlements, and has met no consequences at all for that defiance. Generous U.S. aid in the financial, military, and economic fields continues to flow to Israel unimpeded.

The publication of Goldstone’s report presented another challenge to Washington’s continued support for Israel. Goldstone recommended that both the U.N. Human Rights Council — which Washington finally joined last Monday — and the even more important Security Council should take follow-up actions to ensure Israeli (and Palestinian) accountability.

The U.S. takes over the presidency of the Security Council for the next month. Governments around the world — as well as rights activists — will be watching to see how it deals with Goldstone’s recommendations. The first reactions from Obama’s ambassador to the U.N., Susan Rice, were very dismissive about them.

Many Arab states, including those that are politically closest to the U.S., meanwhile continue to watch impatiently for sign of real activism from Washington on the peacemaking.

One Arab ambassador told IPS he wants to see Obama speedily announce the time and place of the start of negotiations over the final peace. He noted that many details of such an agreement were nailed down during earlier rounds of negotiation, including those conducted between the Olmert government and the Palestinians last year.

"We could see a final peace agreement concluded by the end of this year," he said. "And we need to see that. Because then Mahmoud Abbas can go into next January’s Palestinian elections with a more compelling narrative than that of Hamas."

This envoy said he judged the negotiations should be held inside the U.S., and should have the urgency and political heft of those held in Dayton in 1995, which provided a General Framework Agreement for Peace for Bosnia.

He also emphasized the dangers he saw arising from the confrontational and aggrandizing activities being undertaken by ultra-nationalist Jewish activists in several key parts of occupied east Jerusalem, including inside the historic Old City.

"It is absolutely necessary for the U.S. to curb those activities — especially if it wants to keep the support of Arab and Muslim states in its campaign against Iran," he said. "If there is no deal on Jerusalem, then forget about it. Jerusalem is important for Muslims everywhere."

The Arab states are one key swing constituency in the tussle of priorities that continues to be waged between Netanyahu and Obama. Thus far, all without exception have been urging action on Israeli-Palestinian peace before any escalation of tensions against Iran.

So, very clearly, have those other significant players in world politics, China and Russia. Both those veto-wielding powers blocked a proposal Washington presented last month to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that would have stepped up the actions the IAEA takes against Iran.

Washington cannot get its way in international bodies as easily now as it has for most of the past 20 years. So the probability of it being able to assemble a tough coalition against Iran is anyway receding.

But that fact does not bring serious U.S. efforts in the peace process any closer. Indeed, by making a strong anti-Iran coalition look unachievable under any circumstances, it may even lessen the motivation of some in Washington to push hard on Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Helena Cobban

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