Sunday, May 17, 2009

Obama makes his bid for Middle East peace.

After a week of disappointing decisions by Obama, there is still room for him to lift our hopes. And, strangely enough, to do so in the area where most US politicians fear to tread.

Tomorrow Obama comes face to face with Netanyahu. Israel's obstructionist in chief will finally have to talk to the man who has vowed to make peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians one of the most important challenges facing him whilst in office.

Once again, true to his campaign motto of "Yes We Can", Obama is boldly plunging in where others fear to tread. The next month will see an extraordinary series of meetings for the new president. Netanyahu will be followed to the White House by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian National Authority. Other regional allies will be consulted, envoys dispatched, world leaders called and cajoled. And then, in the first week of June, Obama himself will fly to Egypt, where he will deliver an historic speech aimed not just at outlining his own strategy for bringing peace to the Middle East, but also at reframing America's entire relationship with the Muslim world, so damaged during recent years.

The contrast with his predecessors could hardly be greater. President George Bush was committed to isolating Iran while fighting in Iraq, and gave almost unconditional support to Israel; Obama has elected to engage with Iran, is withdrawing from Iraq, and has signalled a very different approach to the Jewish state.

I felt during the election that Obama had an understanding of the Middle East which was much more nuanced than his pro-Israeli predecessor. Bush's stance of simply saying that, "I will back Israel no matter what she does" was actually an act of the greatest political cowardice, as there is rarely any price to be paid in American politics for backing the Likud party line, something which Bush did with nauseating frequency.

Obama has, from the start, been sending very different signals, by telephoning Abbas before Olmert, and a dozen other changes in tone which have signalled that this guy is serious about finding a solution here and that Israel's days of obstructionism might very well be being seriously challenged.
According to Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Washington is looking for "real results". David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, returned to London from talks with Hillary Clinton, his American counterpart, saying admiringly that the administration was "throwing itself into the peace process". Obama himself is reported to have plunged into an in-depth study of the history and geography of the issue, reading up on key issues such as Jewish settlements, the Golan Heights, the right of return of Palestinian refugees and the security threat to Israel.
The challenge remains gargantuan as Israel still packs a mighty punch in Washington and has many foot soldiers who will fight tooth and nail to stop Obama pushing Israel beyond her comfort zone. But the truth remains that a true friend of Israel would not behave in the way which George Bush behaved, like an overly kind uncle feeding a clinically obese child chocolate.

A real friend would point out the fact that, should a two state solution fail, then the alternatives are not ones which Israel would like to live with.

The shape of Obama's ambitious new plan are now becoming clear.

First, after years of almost unconditional support from the US, Israel - the largest single beneficiary of American overseas aid - now appears likely to come under much greater pressure to make crucial concessions. The Bush administration was solidly behind Israel. Obama's position is more ambiguous. In his hometown, Chicago, before running for president, he made comments sympathetic to the Palestinians but later adopted a more pro-Israeli line. His secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, as senator for New York, was regarded by contrast as a solid supporter of Israel, but in recent weeks has been critical of Jewish settler expansion on the West Bank.

America last week voted for a UN Security Council statement drafted by Russia that reaffirmed the backing of the international community for a formula that would see a "two-state solution" - that is, an independent Palestinian state established on land under Israeli military occupation for 42 years. Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, indicated that the US wanted to reinvigorate proceedings of the quartet group as another means of moving forward.

US officials have even mentioned that they would like to see Israel sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which would require it to declare and give up its nuclear arsenal, pressure of a kind that would have been unthinkable a year ago, and have moved to open space for a possible deal with a government that might include the extremists of Hamas.

"Prepare yourself for [a] change," the veteran Israeli journalist Eitan Haber last week counselled Netanyahu, who had a fiery relationship with President Bill Clinton while prime minister in the late 90s. "This is not the America you used to know."

In Israel the change in Obama's tone has been noted and both the left and the right have been engaging in fierce debate about how Israel should respond.

On Thursday night dozens of right-wing Jewish settlers gathered on the congested Aza Street in Jerusalem outside Netanyahu's heavily guarded home. With placards and speeches they challenged the new prime minister not to give an inch when he sees Obama tomorrow. "You don't have a mandate for concessions," read one board in Hebrew.

But the next morning, the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom placed one of its weekly advertisements in the Ha'aretz newspaper reading simply: "The real Israeli patriots are hoping - if not praying - that President Obama will influence prime minister Netanyahu, and not the other way around."

Until now, Obama has played this perfectly, carefully sending signals that his regime will not be the pushover that the Bushites were, whilst publicly making enough noises to please AIPAC and avoid ruffling feathers.

Tomorrow the negotiation begins in earnest. I wish Obama well. Nothing would do more to alleviate terrorism than peace between Israel and Palestine and that can only be achieved with a US president who is prepared to exert pressure on Israel. All the signals so far indicate that Obama is that man.

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