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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 17th, 2009 - 00:23:04

US-Israeli relations on shaky ground
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 17, 2009, 00:11

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The US administration and the new right-wing Israeli government may be on a collision course over Middle East peace as well as how to deal with Iran�s nuclear programme, although any disputes are likely to be muted or behind firmly closed doors.

It is the policy of Israeli and American governments to be viewed by the outside world as being joined at the hip with neither side wishing to air their dirty laundry in public.

And whatever the private views of whoever is at the helm of the US that superficial unity isn�t likely to change because, as US President Barack Obama recently told Turkish students, changing US policy is like turning a tanker and needs time. That begs the question how much authority does an American president actually possess?

On the subject of the Israel-Palestinian peace process, there appears to be an apparent unbridgeable chasm between Obama and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, known to be less than lukewarm on the two-state solution.

In the past, he has strongly advocated what he calls economic peace, which involves West Bank economic development and the bolstering of the Palestinian Authority�s security forces, leaving the Hamas-governed Gaza in suffocating limbo.

But once in office, he has said he is open for discussions with the Palestinian leadership and with heads of Arab states but, until now, has failed to put his seal of approval on the concept of a country called Palestine.

Recently, the National Council of Young Israel urged Netanyahu to reject a Palestinian state in a letter that read, �We believe that an independent Palestinian state would merely compound the complex problems that currently exist and open the door to a new wave of acts of terror directed at innocent Israeli civilians.�

Netanyahu likely agrees with this sentiment but would prefer to fudge the issue, probably because he doesn�t want to overtly fall out with Washington. However, his hawkish, outspoken foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, doesn�t share his boss�s reticence.

Israel won�t hold to the declaration made at the 2007 Annapolis peace conference, he maintains, but will adhere to the peace roadmap. This maybe because the roadmap places onus on the Palestinians to end violence and upon Arab states to restore pre-Intifada links to Israel before anything else.

On the other hand, Annapolis puts the burden on both sides �to bring an end to bloodshed, suffering and decades of conflict between our peoples� and to �immediately launch good-faith bilateral negotiations in order to conclude a peace treaty.�

Moreover, Lieberman has openly said he believes the peace process to be at a dead end and is quoted as saying, �If you want peace, prepare for war� -- hardly reassuring.

Obama�s strategy is still short on detail, although he did tell Turkish parliamentarians that a Palestinian state is �a goal that the parties agreed to in the Roadmap and at Annapolis,� adding, �That is a goal that I will actively pursue as president.�

Lieberman�s response was to tell foreign powers to quit giving Israel deadlines to �produce a responsible political programme� and to stay out of Israeli politics.

So it is clear that Obama backs the roadmap as well as Annapolis, which are both on similar lines when it comes down to fundamentals. But he has also expressed support for the Saudi-inspired Arab Peace Initiative, first unveiled in Beirut at a 2002 Arab League Summit.

This comprehensive plan towards a Palestinian state as well as normalisation of relations between Israel and all 22 Arab League members, unlike the Roadmap, requires Israel to withdraw behind its 1967 borders. Obama�s enthusiasm for both the roadmap and the Arab plan are, therefore, mutually exclusive from Israel�s perspective. He needs to get down to specifics and openly say in which direction he�s heading.

No doubt, King Abdullah of Jordan will try to convince Obama to embrace the Arab Initiative when he visits him in Washington at the end of April. It�s worth noting that King Abdullah will be the first Middle Eastern leader to be invited to the Obama White House while Netanyahu has yet to be summoned.

Obama�s special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, is scheduled to visit Israel and the Occupied Territories to understand the mood in both camps. His is not an enviable task. The momentum towards peace has rarely, if ever, been as stagnated.

Israelis have proved their disinterest in moving forward by voting for Netanyahu, while Fatah and Hamas are still divided. Mitchell will have to heavily prod both sides if he hopes to pull a rabbit from his hat. Unless Obama is prepared to bare a few teeth, Mitchell will get nowhere even if he will be based permanently in the region starting in June.

On Iran, US and Israeli differences as they currently stand are irreconcilable. While Obama seeks mutually respectful dialogue with the Iranians and is prepared to offer a basket of carrots, both Netanyahu and President Shimon Perez are threatening preemptive strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities.

Perez admits, though, that Israel can�t proceed without a green light from Washington, saying, �We certainly cannot go it alone, without the US. And we definitely can�t go against the US.�

Will the two allies eventually clash? All the ingredients are there but it�s too soon to tell. For now, the jury�s still out.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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