Monday, May 18, 2009

Obama and Netanyahu: Much Ado About Nothing

As predicted, the Obama-Netanyahu meeting went off fairly smoothly, with some clash occurring on issues of Iran and settlement building. While the media have also made a big deal of Netanyahu's refusal to commit to a "two-state solution," Netanyahu has called for economic development leading to a "Palestinian-entity," the kind of conditions-based agreement that had been his party line in Israeli elections, and de facto prioritization of this goal.

That there are disagrements between Washington and Jerusalem is important. Obama, while a newcomer to foreign policy, has political currency to spend in the Middle East. His scheduled speech in Cairo is a not-so-subtle signal that this American president is welcome in the heart of the Arab world (unlike his predecessor). A leader with this kind of capital also has currency to spend with Jerusalem. Obama will be a supporter of Israel, but not a supporter of all Israeli policies. For his part, Netanyahu is balancing between the more extreme elements of his coalition, and the moderate and leftist Israeli public. He held to his party line while still demonstrating committment to the peace process.

However, to say that this meeting signifies a significant change in US-Israel relations is inaccurate. The overall relationship between the two countries remains strong, and neither side has any strategic interest in changing it. Additionally, differences in policy between the US and Israel are nothing new. In 2008, then-Secretary of State Condi Rice spoke against settlement building. Additionally, the Bush administration also never issued Israel an amber light to attack Iran. In fact it told Israel straight out "no" when asked. Differences on some policy matters have always existed. The increased attention to the clash this time around appears to be the result of three factors:

1) Obama won on a ticket of change. He has cleverly and successfully crafted the narrative of his presidency to be about departing from the policies of President Bush. This means that even when his policies do not depart significantly from those of the last administration, the tendency by the public and in the media to assume they do will not be challenged by the White House.

2) Netanyahu is a consevative elected in the wake of the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive. Just prior to elections, Israel showed its hawkish side with the invasion of the Gaza strip, a move which cost it militarily and politically. During the offensive, Netanyahu was critical of Livni and the government, saying that the operation was insufficient and should have gone farther. Finally, his subsequent appointment of the very right wing Avigdor Lieberman served as a tacit endorsement of some of the radical policies advocated by Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party. For these reasons, Netanyahu is being watched closely by interested parties. One only need to look at the reactions of the Arab press to see the extent to which certain entities seem to be waiting for a radical right-wing Netanyahu to rear his head.

3) The idea of the "Israel Lobby" has entered the public debate. In response to the article and subsequent book by Walt and Mearsheimer, the US-Israel relationship has come under the microscope as of late. Additionally, the rise of progressive Israel groups such as the J Street Lobby have made debates over the nature of the relationship more public and more legitimate. The Obama-Netanyahu meeting is proof positive that perhaps the US-Israel relationship is not as parallel as some have claimed or hoped.

As US-Israel policy continues to develop, the next round of posturing by both sides will be a good indication of the real storm which is yet to come. Obama's rhetoric about Palestinians in Cairo will need to be carefully considered as well as Netanyahu's actions in the Knesset upon his return to Israel. Ultimately however, the two sides have far too many interests in common to take steps that would seriously jeopardize the US-Israel relationship in any significant way.




Sources:

1) Elise Labott, "Analysis: Obama's toughlove approach to Israel,"
CNN, May 18, 2009.

2) Ewan MacAskill, "Obama to Deliver Speech to the Muslim World,"
The Guardian, May 8, 2009.

3) Arshad Mohammed, "Israeli Settlement Building Hurting Talks - Rice,"
Reuters, June, 15 2008.

4) "Report: US Rejected Israeli Plea to Attack Iran,"
CNN, January 11, 2009.

5) "Netanyahu: Gaza Offensive Stopped Too Soon,"
CBS News, February 4, 2009.

6) "Netanyahu Shrugs off Obama call for 2-State Solution,"
ArabNews.com, May 18, 2009.

7) John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, "The Israel Lobby,"
London Review of Books, March 23, 2006.

7) "About Us,"
J Stret Lobby, online: http://www.jstreet.org/about/about-us.

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