By M.K. Bhadrakumar
26 May 2009
Taboos do not come single. Barack Obama must break other inter-related, equally formidable taboos — Syria, Hamas, Hezbollah. Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch him approach the mother of all taboos — Islamism.
All eyes were on an intense 90-minute first meeting between Mr. Obama and the newly elected hard-line Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in Washington last Monday. None could be sure what would come of it. The speculation was that the two administrations, increasingly out of step with each other, might be heading for a confrontation. Several contentious issues have cropped up. Mr. Obama seems to visualise Israel entering into peace talks with the Arabs on the basis of “land-for-peace deals” in the West Bank and other occupied lands. For sure, Mr. Obama defines the “two-state” solution as the key to solving the Palestinian problem. Again, the Obama administration has been harping on a freeze on the construction of a new settlement housing by Israel. Finally, Washington and Israel have been manifestly differing in their approaches to the situation around Iran.
Meanwhile, Washington has gently put Israel’s nuclear weapon stockpile (estimated at between 100 and 200 advanced weapons) in the diplomatic mix. Addressing a conference on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty on May 5, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller said: “Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States”. The stress on Israel’s transparency and accountability takes the Obama administration back to the stance taken by President John F. Kennedy. The 40-year Kissingerian thesis of the Cold War era – that colluding with Israel’s nuclear capacity was in the U.S strategic interest – is being overturned.
Bruce Ridel, an influential voice in the U.S. discourses, told the Washington Times recently, “If you’re really serious about a deal with Iran, Israel has to come out of the closet. A policy based on fiction and double standards is bound to fall sooner or later.” Mr. Obama is chipping away at the damaging “double standards,” which undercut American credentials as peacemaker in the Middle East. He understands that for durable peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours, then Israel’s nuclear arsenal will need to be included in the basket. And he visualises that the outing of Israel as a nuclear power is central to the U.S. diplomatic strategy that gives Washington the capability to act in the Middle East for a historic breakthrough regarding both Iran and Israeli-Arab peace-making.
Thus, animated, potentially serious differences are straining to surface. Tel Aviv stresses that Washington’s cooperation with it in preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is a prerequisite for Israel’s cooperation in Palestinian peacemaking; The U.S. puts Israel’s cooperation with it in the peacemaking ahead of joint action, if any, on Iran. Again, Mr. Obama emphasises the speedy conclusion of a final peace involving the establishment of a viable, fully independent Palestinian state; Mr. Netanyahu keeps silent on that score, pointing out that Palestinians must fulfil preconditions before talks can resume.
An editorial in the popular Israeli Ynet website said, “Bibi [Netanyahu] is from Mars, Obama is from Venus.” Indeed, the two sides are circling each other gingerly, striving with deliberate politeness and understatement to adroitly sidestep their growing divergences. A honeymoon that seemed endless is apparently reaching an end. British author and Arabist Patrick Seale estimates that what we are witnessing is much more than a mere cooling off of an intimate relationship. He says: “Obama is, in effect, asking Israel to discard ambitions, patterns of behaviour and security doctrines, which have become ingrained in the Israeli psyche over the past six decades. He is demanding a radical change of thinking about Israel’s borders, its long-term security and its peace in the region”.
The crunch comes if and when Washington begins to demand — rather than merely suggest — a halt to the Israeli expansion of settlements, and possibly their dismantling and a rollback. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped on precisely that Israeli blister when she drove home at a press conference, following her meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, that a halt to illegal Jewish settlements is a step towards reviving the peace process with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu also heard calls for a halt to illegal settlements from members of the U.S. Senate Foreign relations Committee, whose chairman Senator John Kerry said he had “reemphasized” the point.
Of course, this doesn’t diminish the reservoir of support Israel enjoys among U.S. Senators. Last week, 76 out of the 100 senators wrote to Mr. Obama advising the administration to mind the “risks” to Israel in any Middle East peace accord. “Without doubt, our two governments will agree on some issues and disagree on others, but the United States’ friendship with Israel requires that we work closely together as we recommit ourselves to our historic role of a trusted friend and active mediator,” the Senators said. Long-time observers nonetheless sense that attitudes towards Israel are changing among the U.S. public generally, including among Jewish Americans. The fact remains that Mr. Obama won a majority of votes in the Jewish community that was proportionately bigger than the one he won from the American electorate as a whole. Within the Jewish community itself, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], which reflects the priorities of the Israeli government, still remains strong, but its monopoly is under growing challenge. To quote M. J. Rosenberg, director of the Washington-based Israel Policy Forum, “If Obama holds firm, it will not be Obama who blinks. American Jews will rally behind him”. Thus, the U.S. Congress, which used to be the citadel of AIPAC influence, is presently considering a “sense of the House” resolution tabled by Republican Congressman William Delahunt with 103 co-sponsors supportive of the two-state solution.
For sure, Mr. Obama is breaking taboos in the U.S. New Middle East diplomacy, while pushing his policy of America’s détente with the Muslim world. The principal among them concerns Iran. Responding to the Israeli entreaties for an early October deadline for Iran to curb its nuclear programme, Mr. Obama refused to set “an arbitrary deadline.” Israel harped on the “existential” threat posed by a nuclear Iran. But Mr. Obama explicitly rejected that thesis, while conceding “Israel’s legitimate concerns.” Mr. Obama bluntly stated, “If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace…between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat”.
On Monday, Mr. Obama outlined the U.S. diplomatic strategy. He said “a serious process of engagement” with Tehran would begin soon after the Iranian presidential elections in June. He hoped to have “a fairly good sense” by the yearend of Iran’s “good-faith effort to resolve differences,” which, of course, does not mean “every issue would be resolved by that point.” The U.S. would guard against the talks becoming “an excuse for inaction” while Iran continued to advance its nuclear programme. He was open to “not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understand that we are serious,” but Mr. Obama did not mention possible military action, as Mr. Netanyahu no doubt hoped.
Taboos do not come single. Mr. Obama must break other inter-related, equally formidable taboos — Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch him approach the mother of all taboos – Islamism. As Mr. Obama trudges warily toward Cairo, where he promises to make his long-awaited speech “to the Muslim world” on June 4, expectations are rising. A survey by the Brookings Institution last week found that 45 per cent of Arabs hold a favourable view of Mr. Obama as compared to 24 per cent with negative views. Arabs keep their fingers crossed whether the wind of change will last like khamsini or may turn out short-lived like the simoom.
The writer is a former diplomat.Courtesy: The Hindu, New Delhi