JERUSALEM — Almost a full fortnight before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is received at the White House, and already political nerves here are all a-jangle. Is a showdown with Israel’s staunch ally about to materialize?
The country’s mainstream media seem to have little doubt. "Collision course" has become the routine fear about how the two new administrations — in Jerusalem and Washington — are contemplating their respective Middle East strategies. And, more pointedly, over what the U.S. expects of Israel to help transform its strategy-in-the-making into a new reality for the region.
Netanyahu originally planned to have been himself in Washington this past weekend for an appearance at the annual conference of the fervently pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that would coincide with a hoped-for White House meeting. When the date for the meeting with President Barack Obama was set only for May 18, Netanyahu cancelled his AIPAC appearance and instead dispatched President Shimon Peres, hoping he would "soften up the target."
Peres asserted warmly that, contrary to impression, Netanyahu is ready to forge ahead to make peace with the Arab world. "Netanyahu knows history and wants to make history. In our tradition making history is making peace, and I’m sure that peace is his priority," he told the AIPAC delegates.
As Peres was speaking in Washington, Israeli public television’s respected diplomatic correspondent Ayala Hasson reported that "to the dismay of Israel and, to a lesser degree, to several European states," the Obama administration has "already completely acquiesced" in Iran becoming a nuclear power. Relying on unnamed sources, Hasson said that the U.S. has made up its mind not to get embroiled in a military confrontation with Iran should diplomacy fail to dissuade it from pressing ahead with its nuclear program. "Iran is way down" on the U.S. agenda of its most pressing matters, she quoted Israeli political sources as saying.
Whether there is just such a definitive and dramatic U.S. decision on Iran is still difficult to gauge. But Israeli policy makers are already warily facing a link between the Arab-Israel conflict and the Iran issue in a way that is markedly different from the link which Netanyahu himself intends to establish at his meeting with President Obama.
Netanyahu aides say his top priority is to get the U.S. President to accept that before Israel commits to any far-reaching moves with the Palestinians, he has to be convinced that the Obama dialogue initiative won’t yet allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapon capability — something Israel regards as an existential matter.
Over the last couple of days, however, it is precisely the opposite linkage that the U.S. has been signaling. At the AIPAC conference, the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, said bluntly, "Iran is the number one threat in the Middle East." But, equally firmly, he said that if Iran is to be effectively countered, there must be Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, adding, "This is the moment of truth for Israel and the Palestinians."
That leaves a jittery Israeli public fluctuating between two deep-seated concerns — their "number one threat" and their country’s "moment of truth."
The Israeli daily Haaretz underlined the growing national anxiety with a Tuesday banner headline that read, "Obama will get tougher on Israel." According to the paper, the U.S. has already begun sending out strong messages about the need for a Palestinian state and the need to curb Israel’s settlement activity.
Haaretz refers specifically to a classified diplomatic cable received in Jerusalem about a meeting last week between the U.S. President’s national security adviser, General James Jones, and a European foreign minister; the U.S. general is quoted as saying, "The new administration will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question. We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful towards Israel than we have been under Bush."
According to the Emanuel briefing at AIPAC, the only solution to which the U.S. is committed is the "two-state solution for the two peoples" — Israelis and Palestinians. The Netanyahu government is steadfastly resisting signing on to that policy.
In Rome at the beginning of his first venture abroad as Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman skirted around the Palestinian state issue. All he would say is that he is confident the Netanyahu government would "reach a secure and definitive peace with the Palestinians and the Arab nations around us."
Pushed by reporters on whether he would ever endorse a Palestinian state, Lieberman declared, "This government’s goal is not to produce slogans or make pompous declarations, but to reach concrete results."
In a recent interview with the right-wing Jerusalem Post, Lieberman complained that "people try to simplify the situation with these formulas — land-for peace, two-state solution — it’s a lot more complicated." The real reason for the deadlock, he added, "is not occupation, not settlements and not settlers. The biggest obstacle is the Iranians."
"Israel’s worries about Iran’s intentions are well understood," observed one European diplomat who has long served in Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. "Their concern is genuine, and there is ground for such concern. Nonetheless, it’s frustrating to see how successive Israeli governments find ways to escape from coming to terms with the need to end the occupation and to solve the Palestinian problem."
The May 18 meeting at the White House may or may not turn out to be Israel’s moment of truth on Palestine. But it is certainly shaping up as a real moment of truth in the Washington-Jerusalem relationship. What’s more, beyond testing Netanyahu’s intentions, the meeting could turn out to be a litmus test of Barack’s Obama’s determination in all his foreign policy choices — including how to handle Iran.
(Inter Press Service)