Two weeks after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip to Washington, on the eve of U.S. President Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world from Cairo, matters are becoming clearer. Israeli-American relations are entering their most serious tailspin in a decade - the decade since Netanyahu's previous term as prime minister.
Bad news from Washington is plaguing the prime minister one piece after another. Immediately after the report that Obama was considering rescinding the United States' almost automatic support for Israel in the United Nations, Obama said the time had come to be honest with Israel. The United States' attitude to Israel so far, he said, had often damaged the interests of both countries. There's no doubt about it: Obama plans to teach Netanyahu about tough love.
The tensions are not just the outcome of the gaps between the right-wing Israeli government and the Democratic administration in the United States. It's also a question of timing. Obama came to the White House determined to generate profound change in a great many areas. Between his victory in November and his inauguration in January, he had time to plan the implementation of his programs.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, came out of Israel's February election without a clear mandate to lead, and his government was sworn in at the end of March. Looking back, it seems he was not quite ready for the shock that awaited him in Washington. It turned out that some of the good English-speakers around Netanyahu are wonderfully suited to fruitful dialogue with the Americans, as long as it's with the Bush administration. Honey, they switched the presidents.
What is Obama asking when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian track? It's still too early to tell if the leaks about his desire to achieve a regional peace agreement within two years are well-founded. The administration contains various views.
The State Department, of all places, which traditionally is less sympathetic to Israel than the White House, is more realistic. Special envoy George Mitchell sounded doubtful to his interlocutors (American Jews and and Israelis) about the chances for a two-state solution. It seems that inside the Beltway there is more enthusiasm for change than in the administration itself. Israeli visitors to the American capital are scolded for their exaggerated pessimism and are asked to stop being such killjoys. The New York Times is already publishing opinion pieces calling for Obama to meet Iran halfway and agree to "special relations" with Hezbollah and Hamas.
The president probably knows that things won't be easy. His global agenda is overflowing: Dealing with North Korea, Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iran trumps dealing with Israel by a long shot. In contrast, it's easy for the administration to focus its disagreement with Israel on halting construction in the settlements. Rahm Emanuel does not mind seeing Netanyahu sweat. Under certain circumstances, the White House would probably shed no tears if the current Israeli government collapses under American pressure.
But settlements are not the only obstacle to peace in the Middle East. What will happen the day after Netanyahu buckles under and announces a complete end to construction in the West Bank? Hamas will continue ruling in Gaza, Hezbollah will keep getting stronger in Lebanon, and Iran's influence in the region will not change. Tehran's race to nuclearization will not stop even if a reformist president is elected there on June 12.
Israel and the Palestinians will get no closer to a final-status agreement under Netanyahu than they were under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. The parties were never near peace. The gaps on the questions of Jerusalem and refugees were too wide.
Meanwhile, the U.S. administration is paying a hefty tuition to understand the region. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Beirut just before the Lebanese elections were seen as a glaring attempt at intervening in the democratic process; it played right into Hezbollah's hands. Obama's avoidance of a specific date for ending the dialogue with Iran is perceived in some moderate Arab countries as a mistake and display of weakness. Will Obama's charm also stand him in good stead tomorrow in Cairo? Perhaps. But the president might wake up on Friday to find that his country is still extremist Islam's greatest enemy.
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