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The Obama Administration vs.

Prime Minister Netanyahu: Confrontation in the


Making? INSS Insight No. 108, May 17, 2009
Shalom, Zaki

A few months after coming into office, the strategic political approach of the new Obama
administration towards Israel and the Palestinian issue is becoming clearer. Although it has not
yet been fully solidified, this approach does not augur well for the Netanyahu government and
the political positions it represents. While thus far the administration has not yet announced an
official new peace plan, several recent utterances create a picture that might appear unfriendly,
perhaps even threatening, from the perspective of the current Israeli government.
President Shimon Peres' recent visit to the United States, before the arrival of Prime
Minister Netanyahu and of other heads of state from the region, is exceptional, at least in terms
of diplomatic protocol. Beyond his status as the president of the State of Israel, Peres has a
unique international standing. More than any other formal representative of Israel, he is seen as
a political moderate and personally identified with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Israel
probably intended thus to present Prime Minister Netanyahu as a leader truly seeking to
promote the Middle East peace process. If the US administration were convinced that this
message is authentic – so it was probably hoped in the Prime Minister’s Office – Netanyahu
would be granted the heartfelt and warm reception the administration bestows on its favorites.
The US administration apparently identified this intention and chose not to cooperate with the
plan. Instead, it tended to minimize the media attention and the visit's public impact.
A sequence of public utterances and media reports by fairly senior officials in the US
administration, none of which was officially denied, also clearly indicates that a cloud is hovering
over the relations between the two states, which might be flagrantly visible during Netanyahu’s
visit to the US and in his meetings with administration leaders, including President Obama:
1. National Security Advisor Gen. James Jones has made it clear that the administration
links its policy towards Iran and its nuclear advances to developments towards a
settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Netanyahu government will likely not
endorse such linkage. Gen. Jones’ previous appointment was Special Envoy for Middle
East Security. His mission was to work out the security arrangements necessary for the
“two states for two peoples” vision to materialize. According to many media reports, he
wrote a report highly critical of Israel’s positions and policies on the Palestinian issue and
argued that Israel defines its security interests in a future two-state solution too broadly.
According to Jones’ report, these interests do not require Israeli military presence in the
territories, as Israel holds. Instead, NATO forces can be deployed.
2. The statement by the US that it expects Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea to join
the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: although similar statements have been sounded
from various US officials in the past, now, especially considering the dialogue the Obama
administration hopes to conduct with Iran, this statement is more worrisome. This position
of the administration, if it is pursued more assertively, might legitimize to an extent Iran’s
claim that the issue of Iran’s nuclear activity must be discussed in tandem with the Israeli
nuclear option.
3. President Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, stated at the recent AIPAC convention
that this is the moment of truth for Israel, that the two-state solution is the only solution
and that the United States is committed to it, and that all parties to the conflict must fulfill
their obligations, as difficult as that might be. This statement was made before a pro-
Israel forum, after senior officials in Netanyahu’s government have voiced explicit
disagreement with the two-state vision, and after the prime minister deliberately avoided
openly embracing this vision.
Various circumstances make it easier for President Obama to present Netanyahu with a
tough and critical policy towards Israel. The conflict itself is in a sustained period of relative
calm. This calm is attributed first and foremost to the deterrence Israel managed to achieve vis-
à-vis Hamas through Operation Cast Lead. Beyond that, the activity of Israel’s security forces
throughout the West Bank largely paralyzes the capabilities of terrorist organizations. The US
administration may thus try to undermine Israel’s main argument, also expressed in its
comments to the Roadmap, that it cannot make progress in the peace process as long as there
is no calm in the field of security.
Moreover, there is clear improvement in the work of the Palestinian security
apparatuses, especially those trained by Gen. Keith Dayton of the United States military. The
security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority during Operation Cast Lead,
acknowledged by IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, gives the option of security cooperation between
Israel and the Palestinian Authority much more strategic weight than before. The US
administration can now claim, and with some justification, that if the two-state vision is
implemented, the Palestinians will cooperate with Israel on an even broader level than at
present against the extremist forces among the Palestinians.
In the area of domestic politics, President Obama has succeeded in reaching a stable
and powerful status within the American political system. A considerable part of the Jewish
community in the US supports him, as well as his political and economic moves. The president
may thus conclude that it is time to put his fist on the table and put forward a clear American
plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, even if it is not acceptable to Netanyahu’s
government. If indeed the president decides to act intensively to implement the two-state vision,
he can expect broad international support for these efforts. The vast majority of international
actors, especially in Europe, massively support the drive to promote the two-state solution.
Furthermore, President Obama can expect moderate Arab countries to "upgrade" the
Arab League’s peace plan (also known as the Arab Initiative), so that it could become more
acceptable to Israel. Even in its present form it receives fairly wide support among Israelis.
Formulations that are more palatable to Israel, especially on the issue of the right of return,
would no doubt make it very attractive to large segments of Israeli public opinion. If Arab states
show their willingness to cooperate with Israel on Iran in return for Israel’s willingness to soften
its position on the Arab Initiative, it is quite likely that the plan would become widely accepted by
the Israeli public.
Finally, the US administration might speculate that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a
fairly positive public image in Israel and commands a stable government. Precisely because he
is perceived as a hawk, he has the ability to "make history" and lead Israel to a far-reaching
settlement of the prolonged conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In any case, if there will
be extremist factions in the Israeli governing coalition that are not able to accept such flexibility
in Netanyahu’s position, they will have to leave the government and would thus enable
Netanyahu to form a new, broad and stable coalition predicated upon considerably more
moderate positions, compared to the current government. This would be the administration’s
response to Netanyahu’s possible claim that he cannot make progress on the Palestinian issue
because of domestic political problems.
It is quite possible that President Obama’s administration will choose to confront Prime
Minister Netanyahu with positions that are incompatible with those hitherto stated by his
government. If the president decides to use the means of influence and pressure at his disposal
to convince Israel to accept his dictates, a possible Israeli-US confrontation of an unknown
scale, intensity, and aftermath might ensue.