Obama vs Netanyahu – the next round

Obama tapping Netanyahu shoulder

By Alan Hart

Recently, US historian Rashid Khalidi published an article in the New York Times entitled “Is any hope left for Mideast peace?”

The answer to that question might or might not be clear beyond dispute when the curtain comes down on President Barack Obama’s performance in Israel-Palestine. (He’ll be on stage there on 20 March for two days, mainly, it seems, to tell Israeli Jews what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.)

Obama’s response to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s confirmation that he had been able to cobble together a new coalition government just in time for the president’s arrival was: “I look forward to working with it.”

Business as usual with Israel?

Unless that was an expression of diplomatic necessity and represents the opposite of what he is really thinking and feeling as he packs his bags for the trip, it can only mean that Obama has already decided that he’s not going to confront a Netanyahu-led Israeli government and its lobby in America in order to kick-start a real peace process.

Israel now has its most pro-settler and pro-settlement government ever. As Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s editor-in-chief, put it:

The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of “a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria”. This magic number will thwart the division of the land and prevent once and for all the establishment of a Palestinian state.

In the new Israeli government Obama said he is looking forward to working with, the minister of housing and construction is the extreme right-wing Uri Ariel. He was the founder of a settlement and has served as secretary-general of both the Amana settlement movement (formed by Gush Emunim in 1976), and the Yesha Council (an umbrella organization of the municipal councils of the illegal Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank). He was also a director of the Jewish National Fund, a key player from 1901 in Zionism’s colonial enterprise. He is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and in favour of the annexation of all of the occupied West Bank.

Israeli peace activist and former Knesset member Uri Avnery’s comment on Ariel’s appointment was this: “Turning this ministry over to such a person means that most of its resources will go to a frantic expansion of the settlements, each of which is a nail in the coffin of peace.”

Netanyahu’s blackmail

To kick-start a real peace process Obama would have to succeed where he failed in his first term: he would have to insist on, and secure, Israel’s agreement to a total freeze on settlement expansion. It could well be that appointing Ariel as minister of housing and construction was Netanyahu’s way of saying to Obama (without having to say it): “Don’t even think about asking for that, Mr President!”

It’s not difficult to imagine what line Netanyahu will take in his conversations with Obama in Jerusalem. As Aluf Benn put it (after referring to Israel’s prime minister as “the old fox”), he will “continue with the successful ploy from his previous term – threatening an attack on Iran”.

The irony in all of this is that Netanyahu has no intention of attacking Iran. His threat to do so started out as a bluff – to get Palestine off the agenda and give him bargaining power with Obama.

Netanyahu knows that Obama’s top regional priority is preventing war with Iran. And that’s what gives Netanyahu his bargaining (one could say blackmail) power. It will enable him to say to Obama something very like following: “Mr. President, to assist you we will continue to refrain from taking military action against Iran, on our own if necessary, but in return you must not press me over the settlements.”

In effect both men will be buying time – for Obama to end the nuclear crisis with Iran by diplomatic and political means, for Netanyahu to continue the colonization of the West Bank without serious sanction.

The irony in all of this is that Netanyahu has no intention of attacking Iran. His threat to do so started out as a bluff – to get Palestine off the agenda and give him bargaining power with Obama. (Netanyahu’s strategy could be described as chutzpah at its most devilish.)

Because war with Iran would have catastrophic consequences for the region and the world, the problem for Obama (as it would be for any American president) is that he can’t afford to call Netanyahu’s bluff.

Depriving Netanyahu of his bargaining chip

So it looks as though Netanyahu has the winning hand, a situation that is unlikely to change unless Obama can solve the problem with Iran by diplomacy and politics. My own view is that he really wants to do so. If I was advising him, I would urge him to send something like the following message, in secret of course, to Iran’s leadership. “If we can reach an agreement on your nuclear programme, I will have more freedom to use some leverage to require Israel to be serious about peace based on justice for the Palestinians and security for all.”

Rashid Khalidi ended his article with these words:

For Mr Obama, a decision is in order. He can reconcile the United States to continuing to uphold and bankroll an unjust status quo that it helped produce. Or he can begin to chart a new course based on recognition that the United States must forthrightly oppose the occupation and the settlements and support an inalienable Palestinian right to freedom, equality and statehood. There is no middle way.

In principle I agree with Professor Khalidi. But even if Obama’s performance in Israel-Palestine in the coming days invites Arab and other Muslim derision and contempt (as it most likely will), I would argue for giving him a little more time to negotiate with Iran before writing him off as the president who completed America’s surrender to Zionism and did most to assist it to kill all hope for peace.

An agreement with Iran could be a real game-changer because it would leave Netanyahu without his best blackmail card.

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