For many years U.S. presidents came to the Middle East wearing two hats: one as an honest broker between Israel and the Arabs, another as Israel's protector against the Arabs. In forming an Arab-Israeli peace coalition, the United States fulfilled a role that its position as a power with strategic interests dictated. It also worked against countries and organizations that sought to undermine regimes in the region "friendly to the United States."
The Americans thus put forth a disengagement-of-forces plan, mediated peace agreements, offered interim arrangements and initiated a framework for a permanent agreement. It is commonly accepted that an honest broker is an objective player who does not openly and blatantly side with one side.
But in parallel with its role as mediator, the U.S. administration and Congress played the role of a security company seeing to the well-being of one side. One after another, U.S. presidents and leading congressmen declared their commitment to Israel's security and qualitative military advantage. These statements were backed with unprecedented economic and military aid and close diplomatic coordination.
The "special relationship" between the world's most important power and the small Jewish state has made many countries envious. The view - part belief, part myth - that the Jewish lobby is efficient, wealthy and aggressive, and that it controls America's power centers, has led Arab leaders to come to terms with its existence. It has even, to a certain extent, cracked open their gates to Israel. The pinnacle was the Arab League's peace initiative of March 2002, which offered Israel normalization in return for withdrawal from territory occupied in June 1967.
Barack Obama had a chance to take a peek at this initiative during his visit to the Middle East last summer. Obama took a peek and Benjamin Netanyahu was insulted. Mahmoud Abbas said the presidential candidate told him in Ramallah that it was madness for the Israelis to miss out on the Arab offer.
Obama's latest talks with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Palestinians bolstered his view that the initiative was the only game in town. Everyone told him that settlement expansion makes them and their initiative look ridiculous to their people. Everyone made it clear that there will be no concessions to Israel before the U.S. president halts the land grab.
Operation Cast Lead convinced Obama that the status quo under the guise of a "peace process" is pointless as the United States looks on from the stands. To acquire the right of being an honest broker in the Arab and Muslim world, he embarked on confidence-building measures with the Arab states. The first step was a telephone conversation with Abbas, before he called then-prime minister Ehud Olmert. Then came the selection of satellite television station Al Arabiya as the place for unveiling his policy toward the Arab and Muslim world. The invitation to Jordan's King Abdullah to visit the White House, the first leader from the Middle East to do so, was not a random decision.
No less so was the decision to visit Riyadh and Cairo, bypassing Jerusalem on the way to Europe.
After Obama senses that he managed to win the Arabs' confidence, he will present a peace plan that will also require them to make concessions and gestures of goodwill toward Israel. He will then be able to offer Israel security guarantees in exchange for withdrawal from the territories, without the special relationship undermining his standing as an honest broker in the eyes of the Arabs.
However, the extent of the differences between the United States and Israel will also reveal itself on all core issues, with the exception of the right of refugees to return. The dispute that Netanyahu is blowing out of proportion - "natural growth" of settlements - is merely an attempt to stop Obama before the president raises it in the clash over borders and Jerusalem. Obama has bothered to make loud and clear to Netanyahu what Bill Clinton told his aides after their first meeting 13 years ago: "What the hell is he thinking? Who is the leader of the superpower?"
It appears Obama does not intend to make do with just talk.
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