Here, in the region, there is considerable anxiety about Obama, and what he may or may not be just about to do.
About a week ago, as the NY Times reported from Washington on 15 April, Obama said that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “a vital national security interest of the United States”.
As the NY Times wrote: “It was just a phrase at the end of President Obama’s news conference on Tuesday, but it was a stark reminder of a far-reaching shift in how the United States views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how aggressively it might push for a peace agreement. When Mr. Obama declared that resolving the long-running Middle East dispute was a “vital national security interest of the United States,” he was highlighting a change that has resulted from a lengthy debate among his top officials over how best to balance support for Israel against other American interests. This shift, described by administration officials who did not want to be quoted by name when discussing internal discussions, is driving the White House’s urgency to help broker a Middle East peace deal. It increases the likelihood that Mr. Obama, frustrated by the inability of the Israelis and the Palestinians to come to terms, will offer his own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state … Mr. Obama’s words reverberated through diplomatic circles in large part because they echoed those of Gen. David H. Petraeus, the military commander overseeing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In recent Congressional testimony, the general said that the lack of progress in the Middle East created a hostile environment for the United States … The glimmers of daylight between United States and Israeli interests began during President George W. Bush’s administration, when the United States became mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three years ago, Condoleezza Rice, then secretary of state, declared during a speech in Jerusalem that a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians was a ‘strategic interest’ of the United States … ‘In the past, the problem of who drinks out of whose well in Nablus has not been a strategic interest of the United States’, said Martin S. Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel and the vice president and the director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. He said there was an interest now because of the tens of thousands of troops fighting Islamist insurgencies abroad at the same time that the United States was trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. ‘Will resolving the Palestinian issue solve everything? Mr. Indyk said. ‘No. But will it help us get there? Yes’. The administration’s immediate priority, officials said, is jump-starting indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians. There is still a vigorous debate inside the administration about what to do if such talks were to go nowhere, which experts said is the likeliest result, given the history of such negotiations. Some officials, like Gen. James L. Jones, the national security adviser, advocate putting forward an American peace plan, while others, like the longtime Middle East peace negotiator Dennis B. Ross, who now works in the National Security Council, favor a more incremental approach … Several officials point out that Mr. Obama has now seized control of Middle East policy himself, particularly since the controversy several weeks ago when Israeli authorities announced new Jewish housing units in Jerusalem during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Mr. Obama, incensed by that snub, has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a list of demands, and relations between the United States and Israel have fallen into a chilly standoff”… This NY Times article can be read in full here.
Obama’s big discussion with Netanyahu in the White House was actually a month ago, on 23 March.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that “Senior U.S. officials said the Obama administration has discussed in recent weeks the possibility of the White House setting out its own benchmarks and timelines for the peace process if current efforts to resume negotiations fail. They said such a step wouldn’t be unlike the steps taken by former President Bill Clinton in late 2000, where he set parameters calling for a Palestinian state based on the pre-June 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital. Still, U.S. officials said such a move by the Obama administration wasn’t imminent. And they stressed that they hoped the Israelis and Palestinians would agree to voluntarily return to direct talks. U.S. officials said Mr. Netanyahu’s government has been communicating much of its position through the White House’s senior Middle East adviser Dennis Ross, at times bypassing the Obama administration’s special Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell. That decision has been interpreted by some in the administration as an attempt to sideline Mr. Mitchell in favor of Mr. Ross, who has advocated U.S. cooperation with Mr. Netanyahu, rather than confrontation. Mr. Ross has publicly taken positions in line with Mr. Netanyahu’s government, particularly the centrality of stopping Iran’s nuclear program as a means to underpin Mideast peace efforts … Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu conveyed to the White House this weekend his rejection of a U.S. call for a total Israeli construction freeze in East Jerusalem, calling into question the path toward Middle East peace, according to officials briefed on the diplomacy … In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Mr. Netanyahu said stopping construction in Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem ‘is totally, totally a nonstarter’.” This article is published here.
With characteristic, and delicious, irony, Akiva Eldar wrote in Haaretz today that “The prime minister’s response Thursday on Channel 2 that ‘there will be no freeze [in construction] in Jerusalem’, is like Bill Clinton’s ‘I did not have sex with that woman’. Benjamin Netanyahu did not insist this time that he will continue construction in Ramat Shlomo, Gilo and Har Homa – something he is leaving for Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to do … The two were aware that the moment they were swearing that ‘united Jerusalem’ would never be divided, Barack Obama’s envoys were packing their bags for a visit to the region. The Israelis knew that special envoy George Mitchell was not being sent to the eternal capital just to hear Netanyahu insist on developing the real estate business in East Jerusalem. Mitchell put up with a lot on his way to a peace agreement in Northern Ireland and did not come here to nail shut the coffin of the peace process. He does not want to bury Israel’s relations with the White House. The signs were thick Thursday that behind the proclamations of a ‘unified Jerusalem’, a quiet accord was in the works with the Americans … The key thing is that the Palestinians don’t read in the paper that the interior minister approved new construction in the Holy City”. This Akiva Eldar report is here.
A few days earlier, Akiva Eldar wrote this on Israel’s Independence Day celebrations held at the beginning of this week (according to the Jewish calendar, while the rest of the world marks the date as May 15): “This was one of our most independent years ever. Completely independently, we decided to welcome the vice president of the United States with an announcement of new construction in East Jerusalem; the deputy foreign minister independently humiliated the Turkish ambassador; the foreign minister independently boycotted the president of Brazil; the Knesset independently sabotaged relations with the European Union via legislation that would limit its donations to human rights groups; the government independently decided to bait the Muslim world by declaring holy sites in the occupied territories as ‘heritage sites’ … Sixty-two years after Israel declared independence, its right-wing government is entitled to decide that the time has come to annex Ariel, Ma’aleh Adumim and the Jordan Valley – just as the Labor government did 43 years ago, when it decided to annex a sizable territory to Jerusalem. This year, too, Israeli citizens are entitled to celebrate Jerusalem Day in the only capital in the world that hosts not a single embassy. Benjamin Netanyahu can even propose that U.S. President Barack Obama append his list of questions to the Wye Agreement, the road map and the Annapolis Declaration. After all, Israel is an independent country … The winning phrase of the 62nd year of Israel’s independence is undoubtedly the angry response Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon would make to reports that the Obama administration intends to present its own peace plan. The man who was Israel’s ambassador to Washington said that by doing so, the U.S. would become a ‘party to the conflict’. In other words, today, the U.S. is not a ‘party to the conflict’. The implication is that in order to respect Israeli independence, the American administration is required to forever put up with the Israeli occupation and ignore the settlements. The U.S. is a ‘party to the conflict’ only when Israel requires an airlift of arms, sanctions against Iran or a veto of unpleasant resolutions at the United Nations. Shortly after the previous independence day, it seemed that Netanyahu had struck the right balance on how the conflict should be resolved between the particularist worldview he shares with most members of his government and the positions of the world’s major powers. Moreover, it appeared that the support he expressed in his speech at Bar-Ilan University for a solution of two states for two peoples reflected recognition of the fact that Israel’s independence will not be complete until the Palestinians receive their own independent state. Instead, the Netanyahu government has implemented the views of the majority of independent Israel’s Knesset, which supports the policy of settlements in the West Bank and deepening the Jewish hold on East Jerusalem. To fend off pressure from abroad, Netanyahu has once again transformed the Jewish Diaspora into a defensive army against the might of the nations of the world. The leader of ‘independent’ Israel has transformed Jewish activists into ‘parties to the conflict’ between his government and the American administration (we, of course, are allowed to meddle in American politics)” … This Akiva Eldar analysis was published here.
Meanwhile, just to be perfectly helpful, Netanyahu has made a proposal that he knows perfectly well Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected for years. As Haaretz reported Friday, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is amenable to an interim agreement in the West Bank that would include the establishment of a Palestinian state within temporary borders. Netanyahu considers such an interim step a possible way to unfreeze the stalled political process that was created because of the Palestinian leadership’s refusal to resume talks on a final settlement. However, the prime minister insists on delaying discussion on the final status of Jerusalem to the end of the process, and refuses to agree to a freeze on Jewish construction in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu and his aides have held intensive contacts in recent days with representatives of the U.S. administration in an effort to contain the crisis in the relations between the two countries … The formula of a Palestinian state within temporary borders was included in the second stage of the road map of 2003, but the Palestinians, and Mahmoud Abbas at their head, opposed it then and oppose it now, considering it a recipe for keeping Israeli occupation of the territories in place. Three Israeli politicians – Defense Minister Ehud Barak, President Shimon Peres and MK Shaul Mofaz of Kadima – tried to advance the idea of a Palestinian state within temporary borders during the past year, as a reasonable recipe for breaking out of the current political stalemate that was created since elections in Israel. Netanyahu is now leading toward their view, after losing hope of moving toward a permanent settlement with Abbas. If this initiative progresses, it is expected to result in objections from the parties on the right, who oppose any concession to the Palestinians. Establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank, or even a partial framework with temporary borders, will require Israel to withdraw from more territory and perhaps even evacuate settlements. But if the Palestinians reject the idea – as is expected – Netanyahu will be able to claim that they are once more missing an opportunity for a settlement by being stubborn and rejectionist”… This Haaretz report can be read in full here.