Israel is not the only US interest in the region; however, it remains the cornerstone for its Middle East policy. Thus, it is early to predict whether the Arab uprisings would reshuffle the priorities of the decision-maker in the White House. The Obama administration exercises pressure on Netanyahu’s government to take into account the US interests in the region and respond to the American perceptions of a solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict and especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, the impact of the American supporters of Israel and the strength of the Israeli lobby urged the Obama administration to back down in face of the Israeli intransigence.
In light of the above, it is possible to say that the American policy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue will follow one of three trends:
1. It might pressure Israel to speed up the peace settlement. This depends on the extent to which the Arab uprisings could achieve their objectives while forming strategic spaces supportive of the Palestinian rights.
2. The American policy might continue its bias towards the Israeli side at the expense of Arab and Palestinian interests. This trend is enhanced by the impact of Israel on the US and the history of such issue over the past decades as well as the cultural and religious backgrounds affecting the US decision-making.
3. The Obama administration would not implement the Israeli demands, which include exercising pressure on the Europeans to refrain from recognizing the Palestinian State. This trend is likely due to the intransigence of the Netanyahu government and its refusal to respond to Obama’s perceptions.
Israel: One among Many American Interests in the Region
Protection of Israel and the Expected Achievements
The Arab Developments… A Pressure Factor on the US Position
Needless to say, the American engagement in the Arab-Israeli conflict is not new and it dates back to the time of establishment of Israel on the ruins of Palestine and its people. This engagement is not a circumstantial involvement nor is it related to the change of the situation in the Middle East. Rather, it is a part of the American approach to the region where the US has been the major sponsor and supporter of Israel after the demise of the British and French empires.
The American approach to the conflict has always been marked by blatant bias to the Israeli side. However, America’s interests in the Middle East could not be limited to Israel as there are other interests which make it necessary for the US to be involved in the region. On one hand, there are the sources of energy and the strategic location of the region besides its control of several strategic land and sea locations. On another hand, there is the emergence of other factors represented in what Washington calls the war on terror and its relation to national and strategic security; especially regarding the prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in addition to the importance of the region with respect to the American economic stability.
Therefore, and despite its blatant bias to Israel, the US has sought to find peaceful solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict particularly after the war of June 1967. The American efforts have increased after the war of October 1973 as the US realized that the continuation of the conflict without root solutions would mean a threat to its strategic interests in the region.
Thus, the American position started to evolve over the past decades towards finding peaceful solution for the conflict in the Middle East. On the Arab-Israeli level, the US brokered for example the Camp David Accords in 1978 between Egypt and Israel. Later, it sought to find a comprehensive solution for the region which would include the Palestinians after the Gulf War in 1991. However, it is essential to keep in mind that the American bias to Israel is part and parcel of the American policy even if the American positions conflict with the Israeli stances.
The Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue have always been present on the American agenda throughout the past decades. As the American involvement in the Middle East has been influenced by pivotal events in the region, it would undoubtedly be affected by the “Arab spring.” In his speech which presented the American administration stance towards the Arab events, President Barak Obama said that “A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people—not just one or two leaders—must believe peace is possible.” This was, undoubtedly, an implicit reference to the need for Israel to accommodate the size and impact of the changes in the region and their future repercussions on its security.
Based on the direct American involvement in the conflict, the Obama administration has begun to get engaged in the peace process in the region since the very first day of Obama’s advent to presidency in January 2009. This engagement was culminated in Obama’s speech addressing the Muslim world from Cairo in June 2010 where he equated the historical suffering of the Palestinians with the historical suffering of the Jews (this in itself is a departure from the traditional American speech which brought criticism upon Obama from the American right and the Israel lobby despite the unjust comparison from the Arab point of view as well). In this speech, Obama called on Israel to stop settlement building in the West Bank including what Israel calls the “natural growth.” However, we shall not ignore the context within which Obama talked about the strong “unbreakable” bonds between the US and Israel let alone the requirements he set for the Palestinian side. Obama stressed that “the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.” This, in Obama’s perception, would be “in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest.”
In the context of protecting the American interests in the region besides Israel, Obama sought to reassure the Arabs and the American public opinion by stressing that he would start troop withdrawal from Iraq. In addition, he would seek to resolve the battle of Afghanistan besides exercising pressure on Israel. Hence he will try to improve the image of his country before the Arab and Muslim public opinion and to ensure the security and stability of the US interests in the region. Yet, all these efforts were faced with Israeli intransigence where American observers mentioned that Obama’s first failure in foreign policy was represented in his inability to urge Israel to freeze settlement in the West bank. This caused tension in the relations between Obama and Netanyahu.
Nonetheless, the Obama administration had to back down from its demands to the Israeli side. Thus, after Obama stressed in his Cairo speech that Israel had to stop settlement building in the West Bank, he excluded East Jerusalem at a later stage then he excluded demands to the Israeli “natural growth.” Ultimately, he talked about the need to restrain settlement building activities. This was explained later by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in October 2009 where she said that the cessation of settlement building is not a requirement to return to direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
The American retreat before Israel’s intransigence did not mean the end of debate in the US regarding the other American interests and the negative impact of Israeli policies which do not take into account the interests of the American ally. In a testimony of the Commander of Central Command Gen. David Petraeus before the US Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, Petraeus said that the Arab-Israeli conflict have a negative impact on the ability of the US to maintain its other interests in the Middle East. He added that the conflict contributes to the escalating aggression against the US and limits America’s strategic relation with the Arab governments.
These stances had an echo in the Obama administration especially via the then National Security Advisor James Jones. Yet, once again the US interests conflicted with the Israeli interests. In this context, Israel’s supporters in the US employed the deterioration of Obama’s popularity due to the deterioration of the American economy in order to exercise pressure on Obama. This prevented the latter from taking advantage of the package of inducements presented to Netanyahu to extend settlement freeze in the West Bank for another three months. Consequently, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations came to an end before they even started.
The Arab uprisings have contributed to pushing the American interests, besides Israel, to the fore. The American decision-maker was convinced that the US could not maintain its strategic interests in the region in the light of the Arab peoples’ quest to increase the margin of their freedom and eliminate assumed dependence of some Arab regimes on the US and Israel.
Thus, the parties to the American domestic debate, regarding the definition and approach to the American interests in the Middle East, tried to employ the events in the Arab world. As for Netanyahu, he was weary of the American negligent stance in dealing with the Arab uprisings especially in Egypt where the Mubarak ally regime was uprooted. He wanted to abort any American attempt to exercise pressure on Israel. Thus, based on advice from his allies in the US, he requested a permission to address the Senate and House of Representatives regarding the recent developments in the Arab world and the Palestinian determination to resort to the United Nations and Security Council to obtain recognition of the Palestinian State. Netanyahu wanted to put the Congress in confrontation with the US President. Netanyahu was not satisfied with the US willingness to veto the recognition of the Palestinian State; he also wanted Washington to exercise pressure on its European allies, especially Britain and France, to not recognize the Palestinian State.
Indeed, the Republican leadership of the US Congress agreed to allow a foreign prime minister to challenge the US President from its platform and set 24/5/2011 to deliver his speech.
The Obama administration realized that Netanyahu wanted to provoke the Congress against it. Hence, it was determined not to allow the Israeli prime minister to address the Congress except after President Obama would deliver his speech. Accordingly, Obama delivered his speech regarding the American approach to the developments in the Middle East on 19/5/2011, a few days before Netanyahu addressed the Congress.
The American administration informed the Israeli government, shortly before the President’s speech, about Obama’s stance regarding the stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace process. Netanyahu was agitated by the content of the speech which talked about the establishment of a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders, including permanent borders with Jordan and Egypt besides an agreed-upon exchange of lands. The speech also referred to the suffering and humiliation of the Palestinian people because of the Israeli occupation and stressed that the dream of a Jewish democratic state would not be achieved through permanent occupation. Thus, Netanyahu made an angry phone call with Clinton before Obama delivered his speech that day.
Obama’s assurances and commitment towards Israel did not attract Netanyahu’s attention whose main focus was the establishment of a Palestinian State within the ‘67 lines. In addition, Netanyahu was disturbed as Obama considered the issues of Jerusalem and refugees postponed until after reaching an agreement on the borders. In fact, Netanyahu wanted a clear and explicit stance from the American President that the refugees would not return to the “Jewish state” and Jerusalem would be “the united and eternal capital of Israel.”
However, Obama’s speech did not hide his bias to the approach which considers Israel one among other American interest in the region. Thus, he talked about the unsustainable current situation and referred to the weariness of the international community from endless negotiations stressing that the current situation does not serve Israel’s interests. He also mentioned that the American interests require adjustment of American policies towards the region and its people.
In the context of the conflict of wills between Obama and Netanyahu, the latter visited the American President one day after his speech. In that meeting, Netanyahu refused any talk about the return to the lines of ‘67 even if it included land exchange pointing out that this means limiting Israel’s ability to defend itself.
However, and since the American decision-making process is subject to many considerations and factors including the presence of the influential Israel lobby in the US, President Obama had to defend his vision of solving the conflict in his speech before AIPAC two days after he met Netanyahu.
In that speech, Obama had to explain his perception to the audience of the influential Organization. Interestingly, even when Obama tried to reduce the impact of his new project for resolving the conflict, he adhered to it stressing that what he said in public was very well-known in secret. He also added that even despite the US absolute support for Israel, the Americans could not wait a decade or two or three to achieve peace. Obama stressed that the inclination to isolate Israel on the international level and the Palestinian insistence to boycott the negotiations would be enforced in light of the absence of credible peace process.
However, the most important part of Obama’s speech was his attempt to clarify his position on the establishment of a Palestinian State within the borders of 1967. Here, he considered that his words were “misinterpreted” while in fact they were not controversial and not new since this was the general framework of all previous American administrations including that of former President Bill Clinton. In addition, Obama complained about the media focus on his talk about the 1967 borders while neglecting reference to land exchange agreed upon between the two parties. He added that he meant that the Israelis and the Palestinians will negotiate will negotiate a border that is different from the one that existed on June 4, 1967. Obama stressed that “It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.” In addition, he said that “The ultimate goal is two states for two peoples. Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people; each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.”
These assurances did not convince Israel and its supporters, including Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who accused Obama of having “thrown Israel under the bus.”
For his part, Netanyahu tried in his speech before the Congress to reposition the debate on the American interests in the region where he explicitly said that Israel is the only anchor of stability in a region where alliances change constantly. Moreover, Netanyahu elaborated in his speech about Israeli democracy claiming that freedoms and democracy which the Arab peoples are striving for today are the same freedoms which have been enjoyed by a million Arab Israelis since decades.
On another hand, Netanyahu claimed that two years ago he announced his acceptance for two states for two peoples, a Palestinian state alongside a “Jewish state” on the “historic land of the Jewish people.” Thus, he continued, the Jews in the West Bank are not “foreign occupiers” although he realizes that the Palestinian people shared them that little area of land; but he did not mention that this goes against the International Law and the UN resolutions. Then, he listed the achievements of the PA in the West Bank on the construction and economic levels referring these achievements to the Israeli tolerance and support. Netanyahu wondered why peace was still not achieved and referred the reason to the Palestinians’ refusal for a Palestinian State if it meant accepting a Jewish state next to it. He ultimately demanded President Mahmud ‘Abbas to show enough courage to declare his acceptance of a Jewish state just like he himself declared his acceptance of a Palestinian State.
As long as the US administration is not able to determine its priorities in the region and till the Arab uprisings yield their fruits, the possibility to change the US policy will assume one of the following tracks:
First: Exercising Pressure on Israel and Speeding up the Settlement of the Palestinian Issue
The change of the political map in the Middle East region, the deterioration of American economic hegemony, the decline of its reputation due to its aggressive and unilateral policies besides its inability to use its massive military power… All these are factors which might create counter pressure elements on the American decision-making institution in its approach to the Middle East region.
There is no doubt that if the Arab spring achieves its objectives, it will be one of these factors pushing towards a more balanced American approach. However, this will not be achieved soon and the American bias to Israel will continue at least in the foreseeable future.
Speeding up the pressure on the US to adopt a more balanced approach towards the region requires a unified Arab strategy. This strategy must be both comprehensive and coordinated and takes into consideration the demands of the Arab public. Then, Washington will have to choose between sacrificing its vital and strategic interests in the region for the sake of Israel or maintaining all its interests—including Israel—through the adoption of more just policies which respect the region and its people.
Second: Proceeding with the Biased Policy towards Israel at the Expense of the Arabs and the Palestinians
Obama’s attempt to exercise pressure on Israel does not mean his divergence from the blatant bias towards Israel. Indeed, Israel has moral, historical and political weight in the US which makes its immune from partisan conflicts. Talking about Israel’s weight and importance is talking about the project which is above the government and the political parties and which is perceived in the US as a remarkable success within an environment of instability. Thus, the abandonment of Israel as the “oasis of democracy” amidst a desert of dictatorships is perceived as an ultimate moral decline which is the primary reason for slowing down Obama’s efforts. The immense Israeli influence appears in the Congress with its two houses where the Israel lobby has huge financial and media potentials. This influence makes any member of the Congress think twice before challenging it. On top of that, the approaching presidential elections, which will be held within a year and a half, make exercising pressure on Israel more difficult.
Third: Not Exercising any Pressure on the Europeans who will Recognize the Palestinian State
This scenario makes us understand the media reports published by some American newspapers this month reporting that Obama administration has given the Netanyahu government one month to endorse the American President’s plan as declared in his speech on May 19th. American press reported that Steven Simon, the US National Security Council senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, told the Jewish Community representatives on Friday (10/6/2011) that the Netanyahu government had one month to respond to the President’s plan to start direct negotiations. The stance of the American administration garnered strong support from the international Quartet which called on Israel to adopt Obama’s principles as a basis for direct negotiations. Newspapers also quoted American officials expressing their complaint over repeated Israeli demand that the US exercise pressure on its European allies, especially Britain and France. The Israelis want to ensure that the Europeans do not support the Palestinians in the United Nations and the Security Council regarding their pursuit of international recognition of the Palestinian State next September. According to those officials, the US will veto any resolution to recognize the Palestinian State outside the scope of bilateral negotiations. However, the problem, according to these officials, is that the Israeli government refuses to endorse Obama’s vision, and this will not help the American administration to exercise pressure on the Europeans.
1. The Arab uprisings must include the Palestinian issue as a key title in their revival projects.
2. Light must be shed on America’s bias to Israel, which is at the expense of Arab interests in general and the Palestinian issue in particular. This will pressure the American administration to reconsider its positions in light of its interests in the region.
3. Popular events must be launched in the context of Arab uprisings in support of the Palestinian people and its just cause, and due to the continued Israeli aggression and the American constant bias.
4. The official Palestinian leadership must speed up the implementation of the reconciliation agreement and unify the reference for Palestinian leadership. This should help in the crystallization of a national strategy, which is independent from any American conditions and determinants.
Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Osama Abu-Irshaid for authoring the original text on which this Strategic Assessment was based.
The Arabic version of this Assessment was published on 25/07/2011