By George S. Hishmeh – Washington DC
Like most of his predecessors, Barack Obama has failed to come up with a logical approach to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, now in its 62nd year. Many optimists on both sides of the great divide had believed that he would this month take his first, tough step towards bringing the two sides to agree on the outlines of a settlement.
The American president had an opportunity to do that when he was scheduled to address last Tuesday an annual general assembly of 50 American Jewish groups. But apparently he was not prepared to do that and he must have been relieved that he can skip that much-awaited opportunity by participating in a memorial service for 12 American soldiers and a civilian massacred at a Texas army post by an American-born army psychiatrist of Arab origin and a Muslim.
It was glaringly clear that Obama was not yet willing to plunge into the anticipated confrontation, certainly with Israel and the influential American Jewish community, which reportedly contributes 40 percent of the budget of the president’s political party. Surprisingly, he did not discuss the Middle East with the spokesmen of these Jewish groups whom he invited to the White House. This was the second meeting he had with American Jewish leaders since assuming the presidency earlier this year.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was left wondering – – or sweating, as one Israeli paper reported – till the last moment before he knew that he was invited to the White House as he participated in the Jewish conference in Washington. Here again, a bland statement was issued by the White House about the 100-minute closed meeting that Obama and Netanyahu and their tops aides attended. It only said that Obama “reaffirmed our strong commitment to Israel’s security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues.” However, a BBC reporter had this observation: “There were no photos, no press calls, and none of the public warmth Israeli leaders usually get from US presidents.”
Obviously, Netanyahu had a different ring to the encounter, identifying the session as “very important.” A previously scheduled press briefing was abruptly canceled before the Israeli prime minister took off to Paris for a meeting with critical French leaders. France and Great Britain are on record as opponents of continued Israeli colonial settlement in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
U.S.-Israeli relations have been ruffled lately because of Netanyahu’s refusal to freeze settlement building in the West Bank and occupied Arab East Jerusalem. This point was reiterated by Rahm Emmanuel, the White House chief of staff, who substituted for the American president at the Jewish federation’s session. “No one should allow the issue of settlements to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world,” he said, without pointing a finger at any party.
But all this should not give the impression that U.S.-Israeli relations are on a nose dive. “The largest defense deal in Israeli history, for the purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter aircraft,” reported the Israeli daily, Haaretz, “is advancing slowly but surely.” A deal is expected early next year and the United States is scheduled to respond next week to Israel’s desire to buy 25 of those jets, “representing the cutting edge of U.S. technology,” which are manufactured by Lockheed-Martin. If this deal is finalized, as expected, the first fighters will be delivered in 2014.
With the situation on the Palestinian side also on a slippery slope, now that Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has announced his intention not to run in next January’s election and may even quit his two other positions with the Palestinian liberation movement, the peace enterprise may totally collapse.
This leaves Obama with two options: Either close the door on the peace talks and await a better time, if ever; or exercise his power by bringing Israel to heel. That is suspending financial and military assistance.
Aaron David Miller, a former State Department officer who participated for many years in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and who feels that Arab-Israeli peace “is critically important to U.S. national interests” says Obama should ask himself one question: “Am I prepared to be tough and reassuring, cracking heads when required – and it will be required – and to take heat from Israel, the Arabs, and the pro-Israeli community in the United States?”
Since the chances right now of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the big issues are “slim to none,” the American president must realize that “your next foray into the wonderful world of Arab-Israeli diplomacy may prove to be even more feckless and embarrassing than the last.”
So if Obama’s answer is in the affirmative “go for it,” advises Miller, if the answer is no, then don’t bother.”
My gut feeling is that he will soon after he wins one big domestic battle from among the several he has waged in the last nine months.
–George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.