As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lands in Washington Sunday, he brings a valuable gift for U.S. President Barack Obama: new U.S. legitimacy in the Middle East. If Netanyahu says the right password at the White House gates - "two states for two peoples" - Obama will have his first Israeli political achievement. Then there will be no escaping attributing this ideological compromise to American pressure on Israel. If Netanyahu refuses to say the magic words, this will further thicken the alliance between Obama and the Arab and Muslim Mideast. No matter how we spin this summit, Obama will be the winner.
Since the days of Ronald Reagan through Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, U.S. foreign policy has been widely viewed as anti-Arab. The various administrations were perceived as "Jewish regimes" willing to bow to every Israeli caprice, with some arm-twisting by the Jewish lobby. Arab leaders would emerge from White House visits frustrated, having failed to convince the president to listen to their requests.
America's consistent UN veto for resolutions condemning Israel, its inability to force Israel to adhere to the road map, its opposition to talks with Syria, its support for the Second Lebanon War, and most of all its war in Iraq - all this drove the Arab world to regard the American-Israeli power couple as a single individual. This closeness created such deep antagonism against the U.S. that the September 11 attacks were met with understanding in many Arab communities. The Arab public regarded the U.S. as an illegitimate state, and Israel was the direct source of that de-legitimization.
In his first 100 days in office, Obama has been able to reverse that trend, at least in the diplomatic arena. His warm embrace of the Arab Peace Initiative, adoption of the two-state solution as the basis of his Mideast strategy, dialogue with Syria, calls for Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and treatment of the Israeli prime minister as one of equals all place Israel in a new position. But not Israel alone. Arab states are now willing to trust the U.S. For the first time in decades, Arab leaders are not being treated merely as charity cases, as weepers and wailers or bearers of inferior diplomatic status.
One could, of course, start tearing one's hair out and panicking. But this time we are not seeing the well-worn zero-sum game, whereby everything good for the Arabs is bad for Israel and vice versa. America's new position and Obama's personal standing bear several important advantages for Israel. For example, U.S. policy toward Iran is not perceived as the result of Israeli pressure, but as coordinated with the Arab states and Europe. It is therefore received with greater legitimacy, so that even if dialogue with Tehran fails, an American response will not be viewed as another U.S.-Israeli move, but as regional policy, which will enjoy much wider support.
Radical Islamists, whether in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, will struggle to bring in secular or nationalist supporters on the pretext of fighting the American enemy. Conversely, we can also expect the U.S. administration - which is basing its relations with the Arab states on diplomatic interests rather than the forced re-education missions of the Bush years - will also arouse less antagonism in everything related to adopting Western values.
How will this affect the peace process between Israel and the Arabs? As U.S. legitimacy grows in the region, the term "impartial mediator" will regain the legitimacy lost during the Clinton and Bush years. Such a mediator, naturally, needs partners, but when they are at least willing to sit down at the table, the mediator has a much greater chance of succeeding than when it is perceived as one-sided. That will be Washington's gift to the negotiating table.
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