14 May 2009
President Obama’s March 18th meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will introduce a new dimension to the long standing American-Israeli alliance. The changing circumstances in the Middle East and the potentially diverging views each leader holds in connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict could make finding common ground more challenging than in the past. To preserve the integrity of the bilateral relations, both leaders can be expected to engage in some serious give and take. President Obama is likely to insist that there must be significant progress made in the Arab-Israeli peace process, especially regarding the Palestinian front. Similarly, Netanyahu, a master tactician, will find a way to accommodate the President while also exacting assurance that the US will deal pointedly with the Iranian nuclear threat.
The United States’ commitment to Israel’s national security is embedded in the
American psyche and transcends shared values or an influential lobby. A long
history of moral commitment to a homeland for the Jews, strategic cooperation,
evangelical grass-root support, cultural and political affinity have all
cemented the relationship over the years, making Israel the closest US ally
perhaps with the exception of Great Britain. That being said, however militarily
powerful Israel might be, the country’s ultimate security still depends on the
United States and only together can they fashion a solution to the Arab-Israeli
conflict while safeguarding Israel’s national security. This has guided previous
American Presidents and will certainly guide President Obama--no Israeli prime
minister is oblivious to this reality.
The United States’ dedication to the two-state solution is not a new policy and
it has been central to the Road Map, Oslo accords, Madrid Peace Conference, and
to every interim agreement between Israel and the Palestinians and previous
American administrations. Mr. Netanyahu cannot simply deny or defer the
discussion in hopes of persuading or coercing the Palestinians and the Arab
states to settle for much less. President Obama finds himself in a unique
position to push for the resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations not
only because he feels committed to the idea, but because of the conversion of
events and developments that offer both the opportunity for a solution and also
bear ominous implications if nothing is done.
Mr. Obama has inherited the wrath of the Arab and Muslim world, precipitated
mainly by his predecessor’s policies: two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a
third shaping up in Pakistan, a potentially nuclear Iran and the continuing rise
in extremism, terrorism and Jihadi movements. By every conceivable account the
Israeli-Palestinian discord feeds into these violent conflicts, making it
impossible for any American President to articulate practical solutions without
attending to the Israeli-Palestinian issue first. Neither Netanyahu nor any of
his coalition partners can avoid this reality. Obama faces an international
community that was less than supportive of Israel’s recent military incursion
into Gaza, and allies who want to see once and for all a final solution for the
Palestinian people. For President Obama to unravel some of these menacing
developments with the support of any international partners, he must first put
out the Arab-Israeli fires.
Driven by their concern over Iran’s nuclear program, the growing Sunni-Shiite
schism, and the threat of Islamic extremism, the Arab states--for the first time
since the creation of Israel in 1948--appear ready to negotiate in honest a
comprehensive peace deal with Israel. Anyone who underestimates the significance
of the Arab Peace Initiative in this regard misses the historic dimension of the
Initiative, which offers Israel the ultimate security it seeks. Fortunately it
was not missed by President Obama. The President’s embrace of the Initiative,
which he expressed personally to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, is pivotal to
changing the dynamics of the conflict and reaching a solution. For Israel, this
represents nothing less than a revolutionary transformation in the Arab states’
attitude and it must find a way to capitalize on its long-term implications.
President Obama is as keen as Mr. Netanyahu that Iran’s nuclear program is, at a
minimum, politically destabilizing and may indeed pause a threat to Israel’s
national security. To suggest however that a resolution to Iran’s nuclear
ambition must take precedence over a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict is based on a false premise. As long as the Palestinian conflict
persists, one can count on Tehran to fan the flames and continue to undermine
the prospect of a comprehensive solution which will have to include Syria.
In one form or another, President Obama’s commitment to pursue the
Israeli-Palestinian track has already paid some dividends. Hamas leader Khaled
Meshal--under pressure from the Arab states and certainly in a nod to Mr.
Obama--has indirectly supported the idea of a two-state solution by supporting a
Palestinian state based on 1967 borders. This development considerably improves
the prospect of a unity Palestinian government that can speak in one voice, and
has the potential to deliver on a long-term ceasefire. Hamas is here to stay and
it is now impracticable to count them out of the equation on any peace
agreement. Netanyahu can take solace in the fact that Hamas moderated its stance
under his watch and respond with a favorable gesture, especially now that Hamas
has suspended all acts of violence against Israel.
As he understands Syria’s central role in any future Arab-Israeli negotiations,
President Obama’s outreach to Damascus is most significant and overdue. Damascus
is ready and eager to resume, this time directly, serious peace negotiations
with Israel while seeking normal relations with the United States. Surely the
price tag is the return of the Golan Heights--a price that Israel will have to
pay if it ever chooses to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. But for Mr. Obama, this
also represents an historic opportunity not only to end the Israeli-Syrian
conflict but forge a grand regional security arrangement that would address
Iran’s ambitions. Indeed, only a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace that can
eventually draw in Iran will usher in a period of real calm and open the door to
credible talks about a Middle East free of nuclear arms.
In the end, the incredible bond between Israel and the United States will
prevail, as it is stronger than any one administration or leader. Obama has the
maneuverability to push on Netanyahu because it is guaranteed that the US would
never compromise Israel’s security. It is with the Arab states that the US has
lost major capital, and President Obama knows that if he does not deliver soon,
he can risk losing any partners in peace. If he cannot regain the confidence of
Arab leaders in countries like Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the US will have
another major conflict on its hands.
There is no doubt that the discussions between the two leaders will be tough,
but neither can lose sight of what is really at steak here. Netanyahu knows only
too well that in the final analysis, only a comprehensive peace will offer
Israel the ultimate security it seeks. President Obama sees an historic
opportunity to achieve just that, while both understand the ominous implications
if they fail.
Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies.