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