Netanyahu May Be in for a Surprise

By George S. Hishmeh

Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing Israeli prime minister, is going to Washington on Monday for talks with President Barack Obama. But he may be in for a surprise. His host is not like any other seen in the White House in the last 50 years. In fact there hasn’t been a US president like him since Dwight Eisenhower ordered Israel and its two European allies – Britain and France – to pull out of the Suez Canal, which they had invaded in 1956 after Egypt’s popular president Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the important waterway.

It is not that Obama is about to take a dramatic step, unparalleled since the mid-fifties by any American head of state, but all indications are that the American leader is serious about reaching a "comprehensive peace" – a term hardly used by US officials in recent administrations. (Yet, Obama has surprisingly avoided making any reaction to the three-week Israeli invasion of Gaza earlier this year that cost the lives of about 1,300 Palestinians.)

One by one, senior American officials have made public statements that signaled the new mood in Washington, touching off at times a verbal duel between the United States and Israel. In recent testimony in the House of Representatives, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared: "For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-à-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace process".

Netanyahu, who has diehard extremists in his cabinet, has avoided uttering the words "two-state solution" and argued in a press interview that Israel will want the United States to check Iran’s nuclear program before it makes any peaceful gestures towards its Arab neighbors.

National Security Adviser General James Jones followed the new line in a recent television interview in which he said that the Obama administration plans to fully engage the Middle East. "It’s going to take American leadership and American involvement, and I think the signal is going to be that at all levels of our government we’re going to do everything we can to encourage this longstanding problem to gradually come to – show clear progress."

The US permanent representative to the UN Security Council, Ambassador Susan E. Rice, echoed the same sentiments during the council’s special debate on the Middle East, emphasizing that the debate "underscores the priority that the international community places on achieving a secure, lasting and comprehensive peace" and pointed out that Special Envoy George Mitchell is working "intensively… to help create the conditions for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and for the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state".

Another significant turning point has been the statement by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, who told a UN meeting on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that Israel should join the treaty, a step that some in the US believed would "threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret US agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny". She added that "universal adherence to the NPT itself, including India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States".

Stephanie Cooke, author of the well-received book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History of the Nuclear Age, told me she finds it "a good idea to push the de facto weapons club to sign the NPT as hopefully a first step towards every country with nuclear weapons working towards their eventual elimination". She added, "In Israel’s case it would mean officially acknowledging the existence of nuclear weapons, which would be hugely significant".

However, Cooke argued that the NPT is "an unsatisfactory agreement" because of its central bargain – namely that some signatories can have nuclear weapons in exchange for agreeing that all others have access to so-called ‘peaceful’ nuclear technology. "It is the trade in peaceful nuclear energy that got us into the trouble we find ourselves in now."

But the rationale here among senior aides within the Bush administration is that once Israel reaches a peace agreement with its Arab neighbours, the raison d’etre for an Iranian threat against Israel would no longer exist. Thereafter, Israel would cease to be the albatross around the American’s neck.

All that may become clearer should Obama address the issue in his speech to the Muslim World from Egypt on June 4. Regrettably, that date marks the eve of the 1967 war in which Israel occupied the remainder of Palestine and key parts of Egypt, Syria and Jordan. As such, the day will serve as a stark reminder of how the West neglected to help resolve this long festering problem that has marred its relationship with the Arab and Muslim world.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to He can be contacted at

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