From the meeting between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on May 18, 2009, no wide-ranging agreement was to be expected. To judge from the public news conference, the encounter was a porcupine tango.
Netanyahu flew to Washington after steering the budget through his cabinet, an act that ensures the stability of his coalition for the time being. Obama, for his part, still enjoys huge popularity ratings.
Netanyahu’s agenda is clear: in American terms, he represents Republican-style positions on two fronts: he is politically right wing and economically neoliberal. Obama’s agenda, by contrast, is for change: to break away from the conceptions and traditions of his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Yet the differences that emerged in the meeting are dwarfed by common strategic interests. Israel cannot exist without American support. The US has no other stable strategic partner in the Middle East. It is within these parameters that the political game goes on. Amid their starkest differences, these two nations must remain “friends.”
The shared strategic interest will enchain Obama when he tries to change US policy in the region. He wants to do so, and fast. He wants to pull his army out of Iraq and shift it to Afghanistan. He wants to get Iran to desist from its nuclear program. To succeed in these tasks, however, he needs a new atmosphere, and he cannot hope to get that without first resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This conflict threatens not only the success of Obama’s presidency, but also the fragile stability of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority (PA)—in short, all America’s Arab friends.
Netanyahu has no special interest in the success of Obama’s presidency. He arrived in Washington with the opposite approach, claiming that the Palestinian conflict will only be resolved after the Iranian regime is defeated. Only then will Iran’s protégées, Hamas and Hezbollah, evaporate. Once those goals are achieved, Syria will fall like ripe fruit into Israel’s hands, the PA will reassert control over Gaza, and the Arab states will be free from the Iranian incitement that restrains them from normalizing relations with Israel.
Israel’s disagreement with Obama’s priorities will be, for sure, an impediment. And Obama, as head of the greatest world power, has apparently decided that, if necessary, he will impose his view on the region. He has undertaken a campaign of reconciliation with the Muslim world. He started it in Turkey and now, as a gesture to the Arabs, he will continue it on June 4 in a speech to be delivered in Cairo. This is the very same Cairo whose regime was rebuked by Condoleezza Rice for arresting opposition members. Obama is coming with the idea of mobilizing the Arabs around Middle East policy. They are politically closer to him than Israel. Strategically, however, Israel remains the only partner he can count on.
If advance notices are correct, the main points of Obama’s peace plan fall roughly into line with the Saudi initiative of 2002. The first demand is that Israel freeze the building of settlements. A Palestinian state will be established over a continuous stretch of territory. The Arab states will normalize relations with Israel. No mention is made of G. W. Bush’s letter of 2004 to then PM Ariel Sharon, indicating that the settlement blocs might remain. According to one rumor, Obama favors the establishment of East Jerusalem as capital of Palestine. The issue of the refugees, a crucial factor in the conflict, is fudged: a limited number to return while most will be settled in Palestine and other Arab lands.
But plans are just paper, and the stubborn geopolitical reality is something else. The roots of this reality go back almost a decade to the Intifada of September 2000. At that time, it will be recalled, the then Prime Minister Ehud Barak (who is behind the formation of the present Netanyahu government) washed his hands of the Palestinians, saying they weren’t a “partner.” The final blow came in the form of George W. Bush. His two terms succeeded in changing the Middle East from end to end. He helped to empower Iran and divide the Arab world. The result has been the rise of radical movements, the weakening of the PA, and the return to power of the extreme right wing in Israel.
Yet the problem does not begin and end with Netanyahu and the Right. There is also the schism between Fatah and Hamas. The geographical split between the West Bank, where Palestinians are ruled by Abu Mazen, and the Gaza Strip, in the hands of Hamas, has changed the rules beyond measure. Obama has plenty of leverage with Abu Mazen, and even with Netanyahu, but what can he do about Hamas?
In order to put Obama’s leverage in proportion, we should consider more closely the recent failure of the reconciliation talks in Cairo between Fatah and Hamas. Both delegations agreed that PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, whom Hamas opposes, would not head the unity government that would administer the reconstruction of Gaza and set up new elections. Fayyad responded by resigning. It then became clear, however, that the Obama administration would refuse to work with any government other than his. They trust only Fayyad. Abu Mazen went over the heads of the delegates and obligingly re-appointed Fayyad as Prime Minister. That ended any chance for agreement with Hamas.
In this failure of reconciliation, Obama played the decisive role.
Once again the PA is ruled by a government that has no public support and whose legal basis is dubious, since both delegations at Cairo opposed it. This is the government with which Israel is supposed to negotiate peace. That is why Netanyahu agreed to open immediate talks with the PA. He knows that his partner is weak and divided. He knows that he can continue the Olmert-Livni tradition, which dickered with Abu Mazen for years about a virtual agreement, destined for the shelf.
But Obama’s problems don’t stop there either. He has a problem in Washington too, and this one is largely his fault. Despite the promise of change, he faces deep-rooted impediments on both the economic and the political fronts. He has surrounded himself with bankers, statesmen, generals and members of Congress who seek to maintain the United States as a major power with Wall Street at its heart. Obama wants change, indeed, as long as capitalist America stays on top.
If the American president really wanted change in the Middle East, he would clearly cite Israel’s policy as the main obstacle to peace. He would work for an immediate Israeli withdrawal from all territories conquered in 1967. He would devote America’s resources to the reconstruction of the region. In a context of mutuality between Israel and the Arab countries, he would call on Israel to dismantle its nuclear weapons.
What Obama proposes instead is too little and, above all, too late. He seeks the impossible: to compromise between Wall Street and the American worker, between Israeli supremacy and Palestinian aspirations, between Washington’s imperialist interests and the yearning, on the part of the peoples of the world, for economic independence.
The ills of the Middle East, like those of American society, do indeed require radical change. Obama cannot deliver the goods as long as he is chained to the apparatus of the Democratic Party and surrounded by advisors of the Old School. That is why Netanyahu can rest assured. During his visit to Washington, he learned that all his disagreements with the new administration are dwarfed, as ever, by the strategic symbiosis between Israel and America.