Cautious steps

Published : Jun 19, 2009 00:00 IST

Benjamin Netanyahu with President Obama in the White House on May 18.-LARRY DOWNING /REUTERS

Benjamin Netanyahu with President Obama in the White House on May 18.-LARRY DOWNING /REUTERS

THE visit of the newly re-elected Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, to Washington on May 18 for his first official meeting with President Barack Obama was a keenly watched event. An observer called it the most important meeting, from a global perspective, since the historic Kennedy-Khrushchev meeting in the early 1960s. Israel now has a neoconservative government, which is out of sync with the governments in most Western countries that had until recently given unwavering support to the Jewish state. Obama had strongly indicated that his administration wanted a two-state solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. Netanyahu, on the other hand, had virtually pronounced the two-state solution dead.

Before his successful run for presidency, Obama had empathised with the plight of the Palestinian people and was friendly with Palestinian American scholars such as Rashid Khalidi. In his book Dreams From My Father, Obama has written extensively about race and nationality. But once he began his presidential campaign, he pandered to the domestic pro-Zionist lobby in the United States. In fact, he took a position no other serious presidential candidate had taken before he openly supported the Israeli demand that Jerusalem should be the capital of the Jewish state. The Palestinians are united in their demand that East Jerusalem should be the seat of the government of the state the international community has promised them.

The first major appointment in Obamas inner circle after being elected was that of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff. Emanuel has seen active service in the Israeli Defence Forces, and his father was a member of the Irgun gang, which was responsible for innumerable atrocities against the native Arab population.

Obamas choice of Dennis Ross as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace was also viewed with suspicion in the Arab world. Ross, whose pro-Israeli tilt was evident when he was Washingtons envoy to West Asia during the Clinton administration, was for the past several years the head of a think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which had close links with the powerful Israeli lobby in the U.S., the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

The politically astute Obama is aware that Americas unstinted support for Israel is the reason for its low credibility in the Muslim world and one of the root causes of global insecurity. During Netanyahus visit, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly warned the Israeli government to cease its settlement activities in the occupied territories. Before the Israeli Prime Minister embarked on his trip to the U.S., his government had announced that it had started the construction of a new settlement complex in the West Bank. Almost 280,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank among 2.1 million Palestinians. In early May, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden had called on the Israeli government to stop building new settlements and to dismantle existing ones.

The message being sent out from Washington is clear: unlike in the past eight years, Israel will no longer be allowed to ride roughshod over Americas crucial security interests in the region. According to reports in the Israeli media, Obama, after a recent meeting with Jordans King Abdullah, has decided to launch a new initiative for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. The new plan, reports say, envisages a demilitarised Palestinian state. The Israeli Prime Minister had talked of a Palestinian state that would enjoy only economic sovereignty.

Obamas vision of a Palestinian state, according to the Hebrew daily Yediot Ahronot, is one without an army; it would be forbidden even to sign military treaties with other states. And like earlier peace initiatives, Palestinians would be denied their sacrosanct right of return. In lieu of this sacrifice, under the new proposal, Palestinians in the Diaspora would be given compensation and citizenship in third countries. Obama is expected to announce his new peace initiative when he visits Cairo in early June to deliver a message to the Islamic world.

Netanyahus main focus during his visit was to divert the attention of the policymakers in Washington from the core Palestinian issue to the so-called nuclear threat from Iran. The Israeli Prime Minister told U.S. Congressmen that the issue of Iran could not be separated from the peace process. The Israeli establishment has been making the spurious argument that Irans nuclear programme poses an imminent existential threat to the Jewish state.

Iran has maintained that as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it has pledged to harness nuclear energy only for peaceful purposes. Iranian commentators and many others in the region argue that even if Iran ever acquires nuclear weapons, it would not be able to use them against Israel, given that countrys small size and a big Palestinian population within its borders and in the surrounding areas. Besides, the Israeli army is among the most powerful armies in the world and the most lethal in the region, given its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons.

U.S. officials have said that there are no fundamental differences between the two countries on Irans nuclear policy, but Netanyahus refusal to work towards a two-state solution coupled with expansionist settlement activity are creating problems between the two allies. Obama had dispatched the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, Leon Panetta, to Tel Aviv before Netanyahus visit to warn the Israeli government to tone down its rhetoric against Iran.

During Netanyahus visit, Obama urged Israel to halt the settlement activities. At the same time, he sought to reassure the Israeli government that its concerns were also being factored in. Obama said Washington would not wait indefinitely for diplomatic progress on the Iranian nuclear programme. He was, however, careful to stress that there were no policy linkages between the Iran issue and Palestinian statehood. He emphasised that if the Palestinian issue were resolved, it would actually strengthen Washingtons hands in dealing with the potential Iranian threat. Obama said that Israel would have to take difficult steps, including the improvement of the humanitarian situation in Gaza.

But the extreme right-wing Israeli government has kept on sending hawkish signals. A senior Israeli official told the media in Washington after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting that Israel would have no other option but to make a difficult decision on Iran if the nuclear issue was not resolved to Tel Avivs satisfaction. Israels Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that all options against Iran were open.

Irans response followed a few days later. It test-fired Sejil-11, a long-range missile capable of hitting targets in Israel. Significantly, Obama had called on nuclear weapons states such as India, Pakistan and Israel to sign the NPT a week before the Israeli Prime Minister came visiting.

The Palestinian chief negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erekat, said that Obamas plea for a two-state solution had fallen on deaf ears. He said the Palestinians had low expectations from the talks between the U.S. President and the Israeli Prime Minister. We appreciate very much what President Obama said Im sure this fell on deaf ears. Netanyahu will continue to be in a state of denial, Erekat told Al Jazeera. Netanyahu has so far refused to subscribe to the idea of an independent Palestinian state.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior aide of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that Netanyahus willingness to renew peace talks with the Palestinians was a vacuous stance. The Palestine Liberation Organisation leader said that the Palestinians would never again engage in negotiations with Israel that were mere chatter and did not lead anywhere. He pointed out that the first clause of the American-supported road map for peace called for a freeze in the construction of settlements. The first thing the Netanyahu government did after assuming office was to accelerate the pace of settlement building in the occupied areas.

The Hamas spokesman in Gaza was even more critical about the outcome of the Obama-Netanyahu talks. He said that the goal of the Obama administration was to mislead global public opinion and to ensure the existence of Israel as a racist state. As the perceptive Israeli commentator Amira Haas has observed, no Israeli government since 1993 has been in a hurry to make peace with the Palestinians. In a recent article in Haaretz, she said that a genuine peace deal would cause serious damage to many of its core interests.

Weapons and ammunition developed by Israeli defence industries and sold to countries such as India are tested daily in the West Bank and Gaza. The Oslo peace accords helped Israel shed its status as an occupying power in most international capitals. According to Haas, who reports from the occupied territories, protecting Israeli settlements requires constant development of surveillance and deterrence equipment. These are securitys cutting edge in the developed world, and serves banks, companies, shanty towns and ethnic enclaves where rebellions must be suppressed, writes Haas.

A peace agreement would also mean a just distribution of the West Banks scarce water resources. Most of these have been diverted to the Jewish settlements, which have pockmarked the West Bank with their walls and separate roads.

The aim of Israeli governments, whether led by the Labour, the Kadima or the Likud parties, essentially remains the same. They all want the Palestinians to remain second-class citizens permanently. To make this a reality, they will continue to oppress them economically, politically and militarily.

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