Friday, 23 April 2010

Mending fences

US-Israeli relations have been in the freezer for a good few weeks. A defrost seems in the offing.

Relations have been somewhat shaky for some time. Following President Obama's election in November 2008, Israel strove to adjust to the change of direction in American policy as the new president began to operate his reconceived approach to Middle East affairs.

Obama came to office, it seemed clear, determined on convincing the Muslim world of America's desire to bring peace and stability to the region. His speech in Cairo in June 2009 was intended to usher in a new post-Bush era in US-Muslim relations. "The cycle of suspicion and discord" between the United States and the Muslim world must end, he said. He called for a "new beginning"; both sides needed to make a "sustained effort to respect one another and seek common ground". The US bond with Israel was unbreakable, he said, but the Palestinians' plight was "intolerable".

In the following months he strove to engage with all the main players in the region, as he attempted to bring Israel and the Palestinian Authority back to the negotiating table. The game plan, it emerged, was to strive not merely for an agreement in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but for a much wider "comprehensive peace in the Middle East", involving also Lebanon, Syria, and including the full normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states.

The results of this new USA approach to Middle East affairs were not surprising.

First was the inevitable uncertainty, if not fear, within Israel at what the new president might be prepared to concede to rejectionist states like Iran and Syria – to say nothing of their al-Qaeda inspired puppets Hamas and Hizbollah – in return for "engaging" with the US (code for giving tacit acceptance to the peace discussions in the first place, and then to whatever the Israel-Palestine peace negotiations might yield).

Needless to say, the "engagement" policy has yielded few results. Iran has spurned Obama's approaches, and ploughed ahead with its continued arming of Hamas and Hizbollah on the one hand, and its uranium enrichment programme on the other. As a result the President has explicitly excluded Iran from his new "no first strike" nuclear policy, and is actively seeking a fourth set of UN sanctions against Iran.

As for Syria, again the President's approach has been ignored. Syria's latest move has been to deploy highly sophisticated Scud missiles into Lebanon to arm HIzbollah for what might become a new conflict with Israel. The USA was about to resume formal diplomatic relations with Syria by sending an ambassador to Damascus after a gap of four years. That appointment in currently on hold.

As Obama pursued his policy of currying favour with the Arab world, resentment was aroused within Israel at what Obama was requiring of her. How far would he go in pressuring Israel to surrender vital political and security bargaining positions? That particular aspect of affairs came to a head following the Ramat Shlomo incident, when Israel's Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, authorised the announcement of a major building project In the Jerusalem district just as the US Vice President, Joe Biden, arrived in the country to inaugurate the PA-Israel proximity talks.

The diplomatic flurry that followed has still not been sorted, though positive signs have now been detected. When Benjamin Netanyahu met Barack Obama in Washington shortly after the debacle, the President expressed his displeasure by presenting the Israeli Prime Minister with a list of actions that he considered necessary to re-establish confidence and put the peace process back on track.

There followed several weeks of silence. It is only in the past few days that signals have begin to appear from the White House of a willingness to see an improvement in relations with Netanyahu. The word is that PM Netanyahu and senior members of his staff have been holding intensive consultations with US officials, in an attempt to resolve the key issues that have caused a crisis in relations between the two countries in the last months.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said a few days ago that extensive talks had been held with the Israelis and the Palestinians on concrete steps that both parties could take to improve the atmosphere, and that US Middle East envoy George Mitchell would be continuing those talks. Both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have now met Mitchell, who has been visiting Jerusalem. Later Mitchell moved on to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Last week several appeasing messages highlighted American commitment to Israel's security, crowned by President Obama's message of greeting on Israel's Independence Day, which this year fell on 19 April. Senior aides to the president, including his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and National Security Adviser, General James Jones, also publicly expressed their support of the strong ties between the two countries.

Then the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported that the formula hammered out between US and Israeli officials for bringing an end to the crisis comprises these elements:
1. advancing to an interim stage and a Palestinian state within temporary borders;
2. delaying the discussion on Jerusalem, with an Israeli commitment to avoid provocations;
3. identifying the areas in which Netanyahu and Obama differ, with construction in East Jerusalem topping the list; and
4. a certain American toughening of its attitude toward Iran and Syria.

And surprisingly, media reports almost immediately indicated that Prime Minister Netanyahu is amenable to the idea of an agreement with the Palestinian leadership that could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders. The prime minister is understood to endorse this goal as a way to get the process moving again, despite the differences between the sides on final status issues such as Jerusalem.

A sense of realism has started to pervade Washington. Indications from these latest talks are that they realize that Netanyahu must maintain his stance on the integrity of Jerusalem if he wants to preserve his coalition, However, now the US administration seems prepared to turn a blind eye to that, provided Palestinians don't hear in the news that a new round of construction has been approved in that part of Jerusalem that lies over the Green Line.

As for the PA President, indications are that Mahmoud Abbas told Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak several months ago that he is willing to do without a public pronouncement on a construction freeze in Jerusalem. A discreet promise to that effect by the defense minister would suffice.

So very slowly, it appears, the tentative peace negotiations are being manoeuvred back on to the track. At this stage it would take very little to derail them once again, and there is no shortage of candidates willing and eager to do just that.

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