Monday, May 11, 2009

What are we, Arabs?

There's a really interesting article by Akiva Eldar in today's Ha'aretz newspaper, talking about the way the Obama administration is differing in it's treatment of Israel from the way Bush approached the entire subject of the Middle East. Bush appeared at times to be a member of the Likud party and often seemed to goad Israel to greater and greater excesses when it came to confronting her neighbouring Arab states.

Obama is taking an entirely different approach:

Obama had already announced during the campaign for the presidency that a "friend of Israel" is not, in his opinion, synonymous with being a Likud member. In his first days at the White House he has made clear that whether a two-state solution is acceptable to a Likud government or not, that is the only formula up for negotiation. Moreover, according to Quartet envoy Tony Blair, the establishment of a Palestinian state is considered a U.S. national interest in Obama's eyes. This means that pressure on Israel to end the conflict with the Arabs will certainly not disrupt efforts to pressure Iran to halt its nuclear program, and may even contribute to it.

President George W. Bush enjoyed the title "friend of Israel" because he made do with paying lip service to pressure on Israel and passed around documents that lacked teeth. He taught the Israelis that it is possible to behave contemptuously and make a laughingstock of the road map, all the while preserving a most important strategic asset - special ties with the United States. Obama has already managed to alter the rules of the game of the U.S. in the Middle East; everyone, with no exception, is welcome to choose between understandings and sanctions, between carrots and sticks.

The question is not whether Obama will pressure Israel; the pressure is already there. There were times when an invitation to an Arab leader to Washington before an invitation to an Israeli prime minister was considered a serious offense. Once a visit by an American president to a neighboring Arab state, without a promise to also come to Israel, was interpreted as serious pressure.

The repertoire of pressure available to the president of the United States is extensive and multifaceted. It looks like we will have to learn about it the hard way.
Eldar points out that the pressure Obama is subtly applying is certainly being felt in Israel, and it is less than welcome.
However, the legitimacy of international pressure comes to an end when it has to do with Israeli interests, or more precisely, with what the politician at the wheel perceives as Israeli interests. Why should the European Union pressure Netanyahu to resume the negotiations on a permanent settlement? Where did this audacity come from, to condition upgrading ties with Israel on the commitment of its government to abide by a two-state solution? What are they thinking? Are we Arabs?

When Israel promises the U.S. president to evacuate outposts and freeze settlement activity, it does not need any pressure to keep its promises. In our case, our word counts for something. Like a spoiled child, Israel is in no rush to willingly surrender real estate it holds and has settled for decades.
And, it would appear that Obama is doing more than simply applying pressure, he is also proposing some bold solutions, solutions which would isolate Israel should she reject them; especially as they provide exactly what Israel claims she has been wanting for decades.

King Abdullah of Jordan has stated that Obama is preparing an ambitious "57-state solution" between Israel and all 57 members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Israel will be offered everything she has ever claimed that she wanted. All 57 states will recognise Israel, each state will grant entry visas to Israelis and will grant the right of the Israeli national airline El Al to fly over Arab territory.

In response, the Israelis would have to stop all settlement activity and agree to return to the 1967 border.

A lot rides on this for Obama, as the Arab world holds him in high regard, but failure here would reduce him to the status of just another American president who promises a lot but fails to deliver when faced with Israeli intransigence.

In his interview with the Times, King Abdullah said that all eyes would be "looking to Washington".

"If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American government that is going to let us all down."

He also warned that if Israel procrastinated on a two-state solution, or there was no clear US vision on what should happen this year, Mr Obama's "tremendous credibility" in the Arab world would evaporate overnight.

"If we delay our peace negotiations, then there is going to be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12-18 months," he said.

So Obama, by phoning Abbas before he phoned Olmert, and by generally letting it be known that he disapproved of Israel's actions in Gaza, has exerted a pressure on the Israelis that they have not felt for an awful long time.

It has not, as the Eldar article states, gone down terribly well in Israel. But now Obama will come forward with the carrot.

Full recognition.

Now we will find out just how serious the Israelis, under Netanyahu's leadership, are about peace. For years Israel has built illegal settlements whilst claiming to be searching for "a partner for peace", a partner and a peace that always seemed to just elude them.

Cynics like myself always believed that this occurred because, no matter what Israel claimed, she actually wanted land much more than she wanted peace.

Obama is about to test that theory by offering the Israelis everything that they have always said they wanted. My bet is that the Israelis will pick holes in the offer and insist on things which they know can never happen; such as the Palestinians recognising Israel as "a Jewish state". And, even if the Palestinians were to make such a huge concession, Israel would very quickly find another demand to replace the one the Palestinians had just conceded to.

This is what the Israelis have done from 1967 onwards. I really don't see them changing, especially now that Netanyahu is in the driving seat.

I really hope that I am wrong, but I doubt it.

Click title for full article.

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