Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hassan Nafaa

They didn't see eye to eye

Divisions of interest and ideology between Obama and Netanyahu can be exploited by the Arabs, but only if they unite and resolve their petty squabbles, writes Hassan Nafaa*

I was so interested in the joint news conference of Barack Obama and Binyamin Netanyahu I actually read the text on the White House website after watching the whole thing on television. That the two men are highly intelligent and quick minded, yet different in almost every other way, made the event all the more interesting.

Obama and Netanyahu know how close their countries are and know that they cannot make any sudden changes in the course of bilateral relations. But they are also aware that circumstances are pulling the two countries in opposite directions, perhaps for the first time in their history. Add to this the quite different personal history, cultural makeup, psychological traits, and ideological leanings of the two men, and what on the surface seems like another news conference begins to look like a real battle of wills.

America is going not just through a foreign policy crisis, but also through an existential one, so to speak. It is the multi-faceted ailment of America that brought Obama to power, and he knows that. Americans have put him in office because they liked the slogan of change on which he ran. So a lot hinges on Obama's ability to bring about change.

Even during the elections, Obama knew that he has to introduce substantial changes to US Middle East policy. Right now, he must be thinking hard about Iran. He needs to open up to Iran and make a deal that would give America an honourable exit from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan. Also, Obama needs to come up with new ideas leading to a somewhat even- handed settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, starting with the Palestinian track. Unless a breakthrough happens in Palestinian-Israeli talks, it will be hard to make progress on other tracks of the peace talks.

Obama came to the news conference knowing that he has to convince everyone that he wasn't making unnecessary concessions and that his position remains unchanged on what needs to be done. Netanyahu, for his part, knows that the Israeli society has been undergoing a deep crisis since the failure of the last government in its summer 2006 war on Lebanon and in its winter 2008 war on Gaza. Israeli voters have put a far right extremist government in power because they wanted their leaders to restore the country's Zionist beliefs, which have been quite shaken over the past few years.

The Israelis need to restore their confidence in their military, which at present seems incapable of adapting itself to a new type of combat. The Israeli army is clearly incapable of handling the kind of guerrilla war it had to fight in both Lebanon and Gaza. Impelled by his ideological makeup and political ambition, Netanyahu believes that the only way Israel can restore its self-confidence is to gain ground on both Iran and Hamas. So he tried to persuade the new US administration that the threat posed by Iran and Hamas must be eliminated before peace negotiations are concluded. And he didn't want those watching the news conference to think that Obama has made him change his mind.

They were bright and witty, and they fought it out on that podium as if in a gladiatorial arena. At one point Obama tried to push Netanyahu in a corner, by saying that he expects him to act, against expectation, in a way that reflects his political experience as a former prime minister of Israel and a man who is fully aware of the situation in the Middle East. Obama said that he expects Netanyahu to act in a manner that reflects his youth and wisdom. Without waiting for Obama to finish his words, Netanyahu jumped in to say that the US president can rely on his youth, but not on... He left the words hanging in the air, and the audience laughed, guessing the rest. Netanyahu was telling the US president to stop flattering his wisdom.

I believe that this exchange sums up the spirit of the news conference. It also tells us all we need to know about the ongoing game. It tells us that this particular round of jousting is far from over.

Every side brought along, as you'd expect in this type of news conferences, a media team to help it push the other side into a corner, embarrass it perhaps. Every side wanted to look as the one putting the pressure, not bowing thereto.

Netanyahu's aides tried to get Obama to set a deadline for ending the diplomatic dialogue with Iran. They wanted Obama to say that unless Iran meets certain demands by such and such a date the US would look into other, more effective options. The Americans didn't fall into this trap. Speaking about the next elections in Iran, Obama said that the next Iranian president should be given time to assess Iran's previous positions and respond to America's extended hand. Obama said he would reassess the situation at the end of the year, but he made no ultimatums.

Netanyahu maintained that Iran's nuclear programme was not just a threat to Israel, but to the US, if not the whole world. He called for collective international effort, but hinted that Israel may act unilaterally if others failed to step in.

The Israeli prime minister claimed an alliance was emerging between Israel and "moderate" Arab countries against the common threat of Iran's nuclear programme. He also suggested that the US, and the rest of the world, should utilise this alliance and build upon it. What he was actually trying to say is that settling the Arab-Israeli conflict is no longer a top priority.

The news conference revealed a widening gap between the US and Israel. It seemed that Netanyahu and his media team were trying to push Obama into linking the Iranian nuclear programme with progress in a Middle East settlement. In particular, the Israelis kept arguing that removing the threat of Iran's nuclear programme was a necessary condition for progress towards a Middle East peace.

Obama didn't buy it. He said that if there was a link between the two matters, it is of a reverse order. In other words, progress towards peace would give the US a better chance to rally to neutralise Iran and defuse its hardline policy.

In a context such as that, it seems clear that the priorities of the current US administration differ substantially from the priorities of the current Israeli government. It seems also clear that the gap in priorities is likely to increase over the next weeks and months. Israel is going to find its options limited should Obama, as expected, propose a new US initiative for Middle East peace during his much awaited speech at Cairo University on 4 June.

This is not the first time for the US and Israel to lock horns. But whereas Israel always managed in the past to patch things up, this time it's a different story. The gap in opinion between the two countries is due to a gap in interests that is unlikely to go away, at least not while the US faces domestic and international difficulties on a scale unmatched since World War II.

The Arab world can take advantage of this situation, but not while the Palestinians keep bickering, and not while half the Arabs distrust the other half. We cannot move forward with something resembling a Cold War brewing in our midst. Unless the Palestinian and Arab parties understand the seriousness of the situation they will give Israel's most extreme government ever the chance to contain the US position once more. If Israel gets away with this, the region could find itself caught up in a worse round of chaos and instability.

The Arabs have an opportunity not to be missed, but they cannot grasp it unless they sort out inter- Palestinian squabbles. It would also be helpful if the Arabs start their own dialogue with Iran, even before the Americans do. We need to cobble together a joint Arab-Iranian strategy, for this is the only way to foil Israel's attempts to avoid accepting a last and just settlement of the Palestinian issue.

* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.

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