Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 March 2010
Issue No. 991
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Time for the Obama parameters

The real crisis is not between Israel and the US but the absence of an American policy for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, writes Graham Usher in Washington

The apparent "crisis" in relations with the United States caused by Israel's decision to build 1,600 new homes for Jewish settlers in occupied East Jerusalem seems to be over.

On 19 March Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Israeli bridging proposals were "useful and productive". By 21 March US Envoy George Mitchell was back in the region to urge so-called proximity talks: indirect negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians which the Jerusalem settlement scuttled but which Mitchell now wants "under way in full course".

And Binyamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation to meet Barack Obama in Washington on 23 March, drawing a line under their worst clash since both men were elected leaders of their countries.

And -- as with his demand for a comprehensive settlement freeze last year -- it seems it was the American president who stood down rather than the Israeli prime minister.

Whatever bridging proposals Netanyahu has in mind, rescinding the 1,600 units or announcing a general settlement freeze in East Jerusalem are not among them, despite both reportedly being American demands.

On the contrary: "Our policy towards Jerusalem is the same policy of all Israeli governments in the past 42 years, and it has not changed. From our point of view, construction in Jerusalem is the same as construction in Tel Aviv," Netanyahu told his cabinet on 21 March.

Instead he has agreed to American-Palestinian demands to include final status issues like Jerusalem in the proximity talks: Israel had wanted these deferred until the substantive, "direct" negotiations. He has proffered "gestures" to the Palestinian Authority, like freeing Fatah prisoners in the West Bank and easing the blockade on some goods into Gaza.

American sources say he may also have informally agreed to block new settlement starts in East Jerusalem and/or other "provocations" that could sink the talks: Netanyahu had agreed to such an undeclared ban before, which is why Obama was so outraged by the announcement of the 1,600 units, especially when Vice-President Joe Biden was in Israel.

The Palestinians and Arabs may or may not agree to the proximity talks. This is because the passing crisis between Israel and the US has masked a deeper one: the absence of any coherent policy by the Obama administration towards the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Some analysts say there is a policy, but it can't be declared. Thus Obama manufactured a crisis out of the announcement to bounce Netanyahu into final status negotiations and so cause a rupture within his rightwing coalition.

Others say the only attitude is rage: fired by a year's worth of failure to get peace negotiations restarted and powerlessness when faced by Israel's refusal to halt its colonisation of Palestinian land.

But rage is not policy. Neither is bringing down Netanyahu's coalition by stealth or promoting proximity talks that Israel, the Palestinians, Arabs and Americans all know will go nowhere.

Obama may be mulling his own peace plan, say sources. It won't be announced before the proximity talks expire in July and probably not before Congressional elections in November, when the Israeli lobby will have most leverage with the administration.

But his plan or "parameters" would probably rehearse what has long been the international and Arab consensus on ending the conflict: a Palestinian state more or less on the 1967 lines: shared sovereignty in Jerusalem and a refugee return that does not threaten Israel's character as a Jewish state. They would serve as bases for Arab- Israeli negotiations and be forwarded to the UN Security Council for international endorsement.

The logic is to compel Netanyahu to choose between real negotiations or his coalition. The danger is he won't choose, snarling any process and again rendering American intervention null.

If so, would Obama again back down? Or would he declare that ending the Israeli- Arab conflict is in the supreme national interest of America even if it is not in the interest of the current Israeli government? In other words, would he state that Israel's settlement policies in the occupied territories -- and the destruction they entail of any independent Palestinian polity -- hurt American power and prestige in the region?

No US president has gone so far. But a US General has. Last week General David Petraeus, America's top military commander in the Middle East, submitted a report to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the "root causes of instability" in the region. His conclusion was obvious to anyone who has lived in the Middle East. Yet it was felt like a tremor in Washington.

"The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel," said the report. "Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strengths and depths of US partnerships with governments and peoples... and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit the anger to mobilise support. The conflict also gives Iran influence through the Arab world through its clients, Lebanon's Hizbullah and Hamas."

Israel's American friends in Washington met this linkage with silence. For one reason: the lobby can defend Israel right or wrong but it cannot risk the charge that it is putting the Israeli government's policies ahead of American national security interests. It cannot support settlement policies in the occupied territories that its army says endanger the lives of American soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Will Obama be the first American president to say the US and Israeli governments have different interests in the region and different goals?

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