The Obama Administration is trying to establish a more positive and pragmatic image of the United States, without the need to use the stick or create enmities. Occupied with the financial crisis that has hit the American and the global economies and with getting itself out of the Afghani and Iraqi swamps, the American administration knows that bettering the relations with the Arab and Islamic world and ensuring the stability and security in the region would not be attained except through the Palestinian gate.
The Obama Administration would seek to revitalize the Palestinian-Israeli negotiation process, and it might adopt policies to contain Hamas and tame it, loosen the siege, and allow Hamas to participate in the Palestinian Authority government whether in a direct or indirect form. Yet, its ability to affect the Israeli behaviours would still be limited, and it will stay concerned with the Iranian nuclear file and with ensuring the Israelis’ security and stability more than being concerned with the settlement of the conflict or the realization of the sought Palestinian state. The Israelis would capitalize on that to lengthen the period of negotiations and establish facts on the ground, in an attempt to impose the solution they desire on the Palestinians.
The Obama Administration Vision on Peace: One Package
Netanyahu’s Red Lines and his Government’s Restrictions
Obama and Netanyahu…and Linking the Iranian and Palestinian Tracks
Obama: Between Softening the Standpoint towards Hamas and Accepting Netanyahu’s Trade-Offs
It seems that Obama is adamant about moving forward in establishing a new world order that preserves America’s top rank, without the need to as actively police the world. In addition, he would not seek to divide the world into good guys and bad guys. It seems also that he intends to push for a stable world where the nuclear threat is reduced.
Obama’s insistence, that he has made clear in his recent statement before the Turkish Parliament, was basically directed to Netanyahu’s government through the former’s adherence to the “two-state solution”, and thus the establishment of peace between ‘Israel’ and the Arab states. Obama made his declarations without responding to any of the statements of the Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman rejecting Annapolis, or the statements of Netanyahu himself calling on the Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.
The Israeli government could not turn a deaf ear to Obama’s statement in Turkey or else it should expect a period of strong American pressure in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians and the Arabs. The standing of the Obama Administration towards the conflict has been rendered clearer with what Obama has reiterated in his meeting with King Abdullah II where he said: ‘Israel’ has to move, and the Arab initiative would not wait too long.
The current American administration is trying to come out with a package of solutions regarding the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict. The package depends on giving a higher value to the Arab initiative which the Obama Administration sees as a possible input for the final solution, in as much as it suggests recognizing Israel and establishing normal relations between Israel and the Arab League countries in return for the latter’s withdrawal from the Arab territories occupied in 1967 and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Nonetheless, the Obama Administration still has its reservations apropos of the return of the Palestinian refugees to the territories occupied in 1948 and the final form of the Palestinian state.
The Obama Administration is developing a security-focused package that includes the formation of demilitarized zones devoid of any Israeli presence and the formation of international forces to supervise these zones for a certain number of years. The American administration believes that Syria would be a part of this package for its prior approval of the Arab initiative propsal.
Washington believes that in case the above was accomplished, this package would isolate Iran and put it in a weaker situation, and consequently it would be able to curb the Iranian nuclear project.
On the Palestinian level, the Obama Administration wishes to dismantle some Israeli settlements in the West Bank as it conceives of them as a serious obstacle to the formation of a viable Palestinian state. The Obama Administration has also expressed its disapproval of the policy of Netanyahu’s government in Jerusalem; all these are signals to an American attempt at solving the issue of Jerusalem as well.
However, the weakness of the Palestinian state both politically and economically, as well as the persistent state of division and fragmentation between the West Bank and Gaza Strip on the one hand and between Fatah and Hamas on the other, will cast its shadows not only on the Palestinian and Israeli political course but on the American course as well. Hence, an American strategic assessment recommended that president Obama change the American policy towards Hamas, and adopt a new way to influence it and change its vision and behavior in a way that encourages the more moderate parties within Hamas to enter into dialog with the Americans, which will in turn contribute to the mitigation of the internal Palestinian conflict, and thus distance Hamas from Iran and Hezbollah.
Therefore, the unity of the Palestinians at the current juncture is vital in the sense that it strengthens their position, and allows them to accomplish an optimal dealing with the American foreign policy related to the Middle East.
Up to the time of writing this assessment, Netanyahu has not declared anything indicating his approval of Obama’s proposal concerning the idea of the two states; but leaks within the Israeli decision-making corridors implied his will to accept it. This makes the issue a bit clearer as he has to arrive at Washington this month with answers for the proposals of the Obama Administration.
At the same time, Netanyahu demonstrated to his ministers red lines related to the prospective Palestinian state including: limiting the authorities of the Palestinian state to what guarantees the security of ‘Israel’ in the future, which means denying this state’s access to any heavy armament, the establishment of military alliances, and the Israeli control of aerial space and territorial borders.
Netanyahu’s government, like all Israeli governments, insists that Jerusalem is the capital of ‘Israel’ only, while the American administration would make the Jerusalem issue negotiable in the light of adopting and activating the package of solutions and linking them altogether.
Israel does not agree to the implementation of Resolution 194 (the right of return) and it sees that the solution of the refugees dilemma is within the Palestinian state; while allowing the access of a limited number as part of dismantling the Palestinian camps in return for the dismantling of the West Bank settlements. This vision is consistent with the concept of “linking” which the Obama Administration seeks to employ.
Despite the pressure put on Netanyahu from his electorate and from the right-wing currents in his government, especially the statements of his foreign minister that plainly reject any peaceful solution with the Palestinians; and despite the red lines he has laid for his government and the restraints imposed by the government alliances, he is quite aware that any tension between his government and the current American administration might lead to a shrinkage in the American political and economic support which would leave Israel in an extremely serious economic predicament. For that reason, Netanyahu would work, within his understanding of the importance of the factor of time, on slowing down the pace of negotiations. His thorough and conservative approach towards the Obama Administration would be based on his red lines and his government’s restrictions.
At the first glance, it seems that Obama’s Administration seeks to avoid creating any tension with Netanyahu’s government. Yet, Obama is concerned about the way Netanyahu is trying to tackle the Iranian nuclear file, especially with some Israeli plan for a probable military operation or what Israel might demand Obama do regarding this file.
A number of the senior officials in the Obama Administration want to seize the opportunity of linking the Iranian and Palestinian tracks. The reason is that some Arab governments have expressed concern about a nuclear Iran, considering that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict would ease the concern. This setting within Netanyahu’s government and the Arab governments would instigate Obama’s administration to think about possible concepts of linking the general issues related to the conflict. The Americans in this stage are considering what might be done vis-à-vis the Iranian file parallel to imposing a political move on Israel.
What the Obama Administration could do for Netanyahu is the formation of a coalition to confront Iran, comprising Arab states that are in absolute opposition to the Iranian nuclear project and to Tehran’s interference in Arab matters, specifically the Palestinian file and Iran’s involvement in arming Hezbollah and Hamas. The coalition would include a number of Arab countries, mainly: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority. Further, the Obama Administration would seek to drag Syria into this coalition by accelerating its respective track of settlement.
Obama could make use of this coalition by inviting Netanyahu to participate in it; given Israel’s suffering from the Iranian file and its wish to be a key country in the Middle East side to the Arab countries, based on having Iran as a common target. Yet the question that poses itself here is: what price is to be paid for this vision? There is a series of preparations to accomplish the deal mentioned above: “peace in return for the Iranian nuclear weapons”, and “lands in return for the Iranian file”.
Netanyahu personally sees that history has taught the Jewish “people” to seriously consider threats to demolish Israel coming from a country as Iran. Thus he considers it necessary to eliminate them. And since it is possible to show Iran as a threat to countries other than Israel, here comes his role as the prime minister of the Israeli government in persuading the world with the growing Iranian threat and linking what might happen to Israel and the Arab countries to the same cause, in order to strengthen his standing towards the Iranian nuclear weapons and the dangers of the current regime in Tehran; especially that the Iranian threat to the so-called moderate Arab countries and to Israel is similar.
The Obama Administration does not discard Israel’s fears of the Iranian nuclear project and its claim that a nuclear Iran would pose a major threat to the stability of the entire Middle East. Yet, this administration wants Israel to be a focal point in the solution of the Palestinian case while leaving the Iranian file to the American administration. The intensive efforts of the Obama Administration to mitigate its standing towards Iran, in order to attract the latter to negations that strip it of the nuclear military file while preserving its right to peaceful nuclear production; this would reduce America’s financial expenditure under the current economic crisis. In short, if Israel did not show flexibility towards the American vision, it would stand alone facing Iran. After all, could Israel move one step towards Iran without the American approval?
Netanyahu would have liked to keep the tracks separated, but the American administration’s vision concerning a solution of the Iranian nuclear file -by linking it to the negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arabs as a major part of a comprehensive solution of the conflict- made Netanyahu clarify, once and again since he has assumed the position of the prime minister, that he would continue to negotiate with the Palestinians; yet it would be difficult to attain an inclusive peace as long as Iran constitutes a threat to ‘Israel’ and its existence.
In case Netanyahu repudiated the deal he would find himself outside the grounds where the American administration lays the rules of the political game and controls its course. But will Netanyahu then stay outside the flock? Will he accept to stay outside the flock formed by the Obama Administration? He would try to push himself into the flock but he would act and move from outside making use of the factor of time. Hence, after his approval of the idea of a Palestinian state, he would carry on with the executive steps at a slow pace thus pleasing the Obama Administration on one hand and his supporters and the Israelis in general on the other, in addition to preserving the lineup of his government which would seemingly face acute crises.
Netanyahu’s aspirations that his government would live considerably long and that he maintains strong and good relations with the American administration, force Israel to seriously and thoroughly take into consideration the U.S interests in the region according to Obama’s vision.
On the other hand, the American administration is aware of its limited means to put pressure on Israel, because of the presence of an ultimately strong Israeli lobby in America and many pro-Israelis in the American administration. Moreover, the experience of the former American administration to put pressure on Israel proved its failure to a great extent, which makes the Obama Administration hesitant in imposing huge pressure on Israel.
Based on the above, it seems that the Obama Administration is seriously seeking to launch the negotiation process between the Palestinians and the Israelis regarding establishing a Palestinian state. Two essential obstacles are likely to thwart this role, the first is regarding the political conditions which Hamas is required to adhere to and the movement’s rejecting stance. The other obstacle is the standing of Netanyahu’s government whichrefuses to allow the establishment of a Palestinian state except according to the Israeli conditions and after the demise of the Iranian threat.
1. Regarding the first obstacle: the Israeli war in 2008/2009 on the Gaza Strip and its failure in annihilating Hamas or causing it to give up on its stances make it possible that Washington re-considers its conditions pertaining to the Palestinian national unity government which is the subject of a Palestinian dialog. This trend is made more likely by the American strategic assessment recently presented to Obama, that encouraged him to soften his administration’s standing towards Hamas. Still, this alone would not be enough for Hamas to change its stance on the peaceful settlement or to urge it to recognize Israel. This means that Hamas would continue to try to raise the ceiling of its demands whereas Israel and the U.S, together with their allies, persist in their attempts at taming Hamas.
2. With the advance of the Obama Administration a step towards Hamas, given it happens, the differences between the administration and Netanyahu’s government would increase. The problematic issues that were mainly Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, in addition to the form of the Palestinian state, would include this new item that is the issue of dealing with a Palestinian government in which Hamas participates.
However, it seems that Netanyahu’s methodology which is based on compromising between not offending the American administration on the one hand, and not trading the Israeli obsessive requirement regarding their existential security on the other, would encourage him to present Obama with trade-offs including:
1. Activating the process of negotiation concerning Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements, in return for the economic peace project with moderate Arab states, where Fayyad government takes the responsibility of executing security and economic programs according to the settlement and peace agenda.
2. Activating the negotiations regarding the establishment of the Palestinian state, while taking into consideration the time range allowed by the American administration (4 years) during which it would be busy convincing Syria to join the axis of Arab moderation, and trying to lift the Iranian influence off the region and preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the American administration might give the green light for the efforts to contain Hamas, after consuming all possible attempts to marginalize or isolate it, by allowing the formation of a national unity government in which Hamas participates or at least on which it approves. However, the most important aspect in the formation of this government is to provide a bridge for President Abbas, together with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, to re-extend their authority on the Gaza Strip and to supply the appropriate atmosphere for holding presidential and legislative elections designed to seize the majority in the Legislative Council and the legitimacy of the Palestinian representation for Fatah. This would give President Abbas and supporters of settlement a push towards speaking in the name of the Palestinian people and proceeding in negotiations and the settlement track.