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Commentary Last Updated: Jun 10th, 2009 - 01:01:00

Can Obama change Netanyahu?
By Linda S. Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 10, 2009, 00:16

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Speaking at Cairo University last week, US President Barack Obama put his credibility on the line. He told the Israelis to stop colony-building and to ensure that Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have the opportunity to lead normal lives.

Moreover, he stressed his commitment to a two-state solution, which he intends to make a personal priority, and equated the Palestinian cause with struggles against South African apartheid as well as the African-American civil rights movement.

Unlike former US President George W. Bush, who neglected to engage with the Israel-Palestine conflict at the beginning of his presidency and who only came up with the Roadmap as a pacifier to his Iraq war detractors, Obama seems quietly determined.

But what tools does he have at his disposal to pressure Israel and how far is he prepared to go to achieve his goals?

Until now, his calls for progress towards two states and a freeze on colony-building have fallen on deaf ears in Israel.

The Israeli government doesn�t mind accepting $3 billion (Dh11.01 billion) of American taxpayers� money each year but it doesn�t like its benefactor telling it what to do.

The views of Israel�s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a potential Palestinian state are well known. He is against the idea unless Israel controls the borders, airspace and coasts of any such state, which must be entirely demilitarised.

In other words, Netanyahu would put up with a larger version of the open-air prison called Gaza, one that would presumably be vulnerable to Israeli force.

However, unwilling to confront Washington head on, Netanyahu has recently said that he wants to �achieve peace with the Palestinians and with the Arab world while attempting to reach optimal understanding with the US and the international community.�

So far, Netanyahu has resisted abiding by Israel�s responsibilities under the Roadmap on a colony-building freeze, saying he had a private deal with Bush that allowed for so-called �natural growth.�

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says there is no written proof of this secret arrangement. In any event, the terms of the Roadmap, which Israel has ratified, would take precedence over any verbal agreement with a former US president.

However, the Netanyahu government has made a small concession to the spirit of US demands. An illegal West Bank outpost has recently been forcibly evacuated with others to follow.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak has denied that the move was a cave-in to American diplomatic pressure. �The subject of unauthorised outposts is an obligation of Israeli society to itself and a society that desires life and preserves the law cannot accept attempts by citizens to undermine the nature of the state,� he said.

His words hardly ring true when Israel has allowed those outposts that �undermine the nature of the state� to remain for years if not decades.

As a further sop to Obama�s demands, Netanyahu has announced he will make a major foreign policy speech later this week.

Obama must not fall into the trap of accepting vague promises if he truly wants solid progress. There is a slim chance that Netanyahu might be prepared to concede his hard-line approach to Palestinian aspirations on a quid pro quo basis: a Palestinian state in return for a wink and a nod from the White House that would allow Israel to launch strikes on Iran.

Obama is far from being the only one on Israel�s case these days. France and Germany are backing his calls for a two-state solution and a colony-building freeze while various EU countries are considering a postponement of upgrading the bloc�s relations with Israel.

Israel�s biggest trading partner, the EU, says it may curtail imports of fruit, olives and vegetables grown by Israeli colonists on Palestinian land.

The Israeli daily Ha�aretz reports that �senior US officials, including President Barack Obama�s Mideast envoy George Mitchell, say they might propose immediate talks on setting Israel�s border along the West Bank� to determine which colonies will remain in Israel when a Palestinian state comes to fruition.

The paper quotes an Israeli official as saying that �this is essentially a threat and a verbal form of leverage.�

King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia has asked Obama to devise a solution to the six-decade long conflict, according to the newspaper Al Hayat.

The king has told the US leader that the region is running out of patience and, if necessary, he must get tough with Netanyahu.

The signs that Obama is prepared to do just that are good but, at the same time, we should harbour no illusions. As he indicated in Cairo, the US-Israel bond is unbreakable.

With all the will in the world, Obama first has to contend with a US Congress that is sycophantic to Israeli interests, US public opinion which leans towards Israel and, of course, the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

If a public standoff between Obama and Netanyahu occurs, who will be the one to back down? Now that really is the question.

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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