Obama Turns the Screws on Israel

JERUSALEM — Air raid sirens wailed out on Tuesday morning and Israelis were asked to go down into bomb shelters as the country engaged in its largest-ever civil defense drill. Israelis remain deeply worried by what they perceive as an existential threat of a possible future all-out missile attack from Iran and its proxies.

But what makes Israelis really jittery right now is the possibility that they may lose their long-held status as the best ally of the U.S. in the Middle East, a prospect which, to many Israelis, is of an equally existential concern.

All of a sudden, Israelis are taxed by the unthinkable: how come, less than six months into the new administration in Washington, the central pole of U.S. Middle East strategy is now but a wooden plank? All of a sudden, Israeli concerns have been relegated to the sidelines, in the shadow — in President’s Obama’s phrase — of "America’s national interests."

Who could have imagined that when Obama re-engages the U.S. in the region, that he would deliberately not even have made a courtesy stopover in Jerusalem? And, who could have contemplated that, for the first time since former president Ronald Reagan back in 1982 unveiled his now long-demised revolutionary plan for settling the Arab-Israel conflict on the lines of a two-state solution in Palestine, Israel would be kept in the dark about the content of a keynote presidential address — that to be made Thursday in Cairo to the Arab and Muslim world.

Twittering in the wings, the Israeli government is literally at sixes and sevens. Speaking at an intimate gathering of his Likud party parliamentary caucus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displayed rare frankness: "I don’t want to create any illusions," he said. "We are in the midst of a reality that is not at all simple. We have to consider what options we have on the settlements, in practical terms vis-à-vis this Administration, but also vis-à-vis ourselves. We don’t want to deepen the rift with the Americans. We have no interest in that. But, we’re not going to uproot settlements – no one envisages that."

On Tuesday night, as Netanyahu’s Defense Minister Ehud Barak was meeting at the White House with U.S. national security advisor, General James Jones, Barack Obama made a surprise entry. He popped in for a 15-minute chat with the Israeli guest — enough time not only to exchange pleasantries but to reinforce the adamant U.S. position: there must be no more settlement building whatsoever in the occupied territories.

This came hard on the heels of what Barak had heard just the previous day from the President’s special envoy to the Middle East, Senator George Mitchell — that the U.S. is no longer willing to return to understandings reached between previous Israeli governments and the Bush Administration, a tacit agreement which allowed Israel to continue its policy of building in some approved "settlement blocs" close to the 1967 border.

The Netanyahu government has thus far been unsuccessful in heading off the looming showdown with Obama over settlements by offering to remove 26 "illegal settlement outposts" in return for U.S. approval for continued limited settlement expansion.

Opposition parliamentarian Nachman Shay told IPS that the reason Netanyahu is having such a hard time handling the U.S. challenge on settlements is "because he simply has no alternative policy to offer."

But, there is a deeper reason for Israel’s national disarray — the inherent contradiction in the Israeli leader’s policy — between his demand that the U.S. respect its past commitments on settlements, and his refusal to adhere to Israel’s own previous commitment to the two-state solution.

The disagreement concerning the settlements produced an embarrassing encounter in London last week between Mitchell and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor. Netanyahu’s envoy advanced the argument of the informal letter between former president George W. Bush and Israel’s former prime minister Ariel Sharon, stating that the "settlement blocs" would remain in Israeli hands even in a peace agreement, and thus construction of new homes could continue there.

Mitchell retorted by showing Meridor that another of the letter’s sections enshrines the principle of "two states for two peoples." "That’s also written in the letter — do you agree to that?" Mitchell asked pointedly.

Writing in the liberal Tel Aviv daily Haaretz, commentator Akiva Eldar sees the settlement dispute in more strategic terms: "Netanyahu is blowing the row out of proportion. He is focusing on the so-called ‘natural population growth’ in settlements simply in order to try to head Obama off before the President begins making demands over borders and Jerusalem."

Netanyahu is clearly caught on a cleft stick, and it’s already on fire. According to Arab Israeli legislator Ahmad Tibi, a close confidant of Palestinian leaders for the past 20 years, Obama has laid down a tight deadline. "He’s told the Israeli prime minister: Come up with your updated peace position by July 1st, but make sure you relate both to the need for a total settlement freeze and that you are ready to sign on to the two-state principle."

Israeli antennae are closely attuned to how the President formulates his vision at Cairo University about U.S.-Arab relations, and how he envisages it will shape the future of the region. Already the Israeli government recognizes that this will probably be but the first of many screws Obama means to tighten around Netanyahu.

That could leave the Israeli leader facing an unenviable choice — square up to a determined U.S. President, or turn his back on his settlement credo and risk finding himself in a showdown with his own right-wing allies. That, in turn, could mean the shortest-ever term in office any Israeli leader has had.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler

Jerrold Kessel and Pierre Klochendler write for Inter Press Service.