Since his election to the US presidency, Barak Obama has raised a number of questions about his political agenda in general and in particular, his policies with regard to the Palestinian Cause.
It has indeed become clear that he has put what he calls the Palestinian- Israeli Conflict at the very top of his agenda taking into account that former president George W. Bush did the same thing in the last two years of his term and achieved concrete steps that have not yet been announced in this respect.
This paper will try to tackle a number of questions related to Obama's settlement project by deriving conclusions based on the measures and political steps he has taken during his eight months in office, notwithstanding any secret information and reports.
- On the highest levels of American decision making; Obama, his team and his administration, believe in the necessity of seriously finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, albeit elemental. It consists of basic all round concessions; from the Israelis, a settlement freeze for a specific period of time; from the Palestinian, security concessions and internal arrangements to guarantee any future agreements and from the Arabs, the normalization of relations with Israel.
- It appears that the American army supports Obama and his project or perhaps it is in fact the army's project of which Obama is simply the executor. Its purpose being to remove 'the Palestinian card' from the grasp of America's enemies enabling the army to make a success of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And later with Iran too, or at least to spare it the failure lurking on the horizons.
- As announced by General David Petraeus, Commander of the US Central Command and Admiral Michael "Mike" Glenn Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), the American army regards a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a pressing need and thus the removal of the Palestinian political card from the hands of America's enemies and opponents especially Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Jihad and Al-Qaida.
- The issue of settlement has now been linked to the army's strategic military interest, which has led to the generals directly intervening to the extent of the direct execution of diplomatic missions; Petraeus' visit to Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Mullen's meeting with Mahmud Abbas in Washington and the visit by a military delegation to Syria etc….
- For this reason, settlement should be taken extremely seriously this time and the previous difficulties, failures or lack of attempts are not to be taken as a precedent. It is true that there are still rather large obstacles, whether that is on the part of Netanyahu and the dominant Zionist powers or due to the bills to be paid in advance by Palestinians and Arabs for the mere initiation of negotiations.
- There is no doubt that the contents of Obama's settlement plan are far worse than what had been offered to the Palestinians and Arabs previously. Obama will give a lot to the Israelis for the sake of accomplishing his settlement program, profiting by his popularity among Palestinian and Arab officials as well as their weakness in confronting him.
Even if we consider the probability that the settlement program will be hindered by those in charge of it, all forces in support of the Palestinian Cause and the demands set out by the Islamic, Arab and Palestinian rights advocates in Palestine, should work on Obama's program of settlement and should not allow him to accomplish any phase of it, including the first one. It is not just a question of rights and invariables; it also has instant political dimensions and repercussions on the balance of power and on ongoing conflicts from Pakistan to Somalia.
I am convinced, in the light of what emerged after Obama's election that the American army, in collaboration with the Intelligence services, was behind the stimulation and encouragement of a number of political centers of power to choose him. Now that he has been elected as president, the army constitutes the decisive force that is capable of standing up to the American Zionist lobby, exerting influence in Congress and creating divisions among American Jews and the Zionist entity itself. It is now a question of the US military's fate on key battlefronts, which are far more important at this stage than Vietnam during the Cold War as the balance of power was stable or somewhat stable and could thus endure defeat. In this period, however, the defeat of the American army would mean the transition to a state of international chaos that may be uncontainable.
In this respect, one should notice the following:
1. The army is the only institution where there is no racial, ethnic or religious prejudice and it is the only American institution not under Zionist Jewish influence.
2. The American army and the Intelligence institutions normally have great influence behind the scenes in terms of strategy formulation. Nevertheless, when it finds itself involved in war, defeated in politics and with a collapsing economy, and especially when it starts to face the threat of defeat or internal turmoil, it will have to gain the upper hand in the affairs of the country, which applies to Western democratic states let alone others besides.
For this reason, Obama should not be treated as a mere president with his policies and strategies or the good will to change the world and make it different. Rather, one should look at him as a reflection of and a strong collaborator with the army. The present and retired generals play a more crucial role in Obama's diplomacy than in any previous American administration. The traditional equation that used to prevail with regard to the relationship between the army and the American head of state is now going through a phase that is particular and quite different from all previous ones.
Thus, Obama is strong not because of his eloquence, popularity or performance but rather due to his support by the army and the CIA as well as all influential figures – politicians and participants in American policy making alike. The conflict has now been intensified within the Jewish and Zionist lobby as pointed out by Thomas Friedman in the Herald Tribune dated 3/8/2009 who warned Netanyahu that "Congress, the Pentagon, the CIA and a considerable number of American Jews support Obama."
The question now is: What is the future of Obama's settlement program?
A. The Zionist Entity's Stance
The position of the Zionist government in terms of extremism is obvious, nevertheless it is still susceptible to being cowed and broken by enormous pressure from America, Europe and the Jewish lobbies for it to be more flexible, although there is a growing Zionist current to counter such pressures.
Ehud Barak having taken over the diplomacy dossier on the issue of settlement instead of Lieberman is significant.
Netanyahu will practically accept the two-state solution and settlement freeze for a specific period of time. However, he will exert more pressure to gain Arab and Palestinian concessions as well as American commitments before he hands over the settlement-freeze card. By the way, experience has proved that the Likud party is more likely to make settlement deals than the Labour party.
Shifting the conflict towards Iran has become a priority for Netanyahu and the Israeli consensus which is Mitchell's card for exerting more pressure on the Palestinian side for the sake of settlement.
The Zionist army, despite its arrogance, knows that it has been defeated in both its wars in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, and Netanyahu should bear that in mind while negotiating with the Americans.
This means that the Israeli decision can be flexible, and should not be looked at as rigid or that it has shut all its doors.
B. The Palestinian Stance
There is unprecedented control, in terms of security, over the West Bank by the Americans and Israelis through the Salam Fayyad government and General Keith Dayton.
Mahmud Abbas covers up for the Fayyad government and Keith Dayton by means of Arab and international support such as his takeover of Fatah and the PLO's decisions and the control of the next elections if they are to take place. By and large, opposition to Abbas within Fatah and factions of the PLO is widespread but helpless, since it still considers that Arab circumstances are not convenient for retreating.
Fatah's convention endorsed Abbas as party leader and elected a central committee of members supporting him which might agree with the Americans and Israelis more than he does. He emerged apparently stronger from the conference which was indeed a scandal that created suspicions over the legitimacy of its results. It may be said that Abbas's current triumph created a kind of division within the de facto divided Fatah, but without being capable, so far, of challenging the movement's unity as used to be the tradition in Fatah.
Mahmud Abbas seeks to convene the so-called National Council, despite the lack of quorum, in transgression of all the PLO laws and for the sake of completing membership of the executive committee, itself in lack of a quorum and legitimacy. Thus, Abbas is appropriating the PLO's decision as he did with Fatah's. It seems that he will go ahead in this matter through the convening of legislative and presidential elections that will by no means be free and impartial.
The Palestinian decision on whether to accept or reject the next proposed agreement depends on the Egyptian and Saudi positions.
The current Arab situation with its present features, vulnerable as it is to overnight change, is not convenient for divisions within Fatah and not suitable for a decisive stand against a settlement by the PLO factions unless there is an outbreak of popular uprising against Fatah or there are military developments in the Gaza Strip.
As for Hamas, Jihad and Palestinian opposition forces, be they factions or personalities, they will disagree with the proposed settlement plan. It is not yet clear as to when or how strong this opposition will be.
C. The Arab Stance.
The Arab stance has entered a phase of internal mitigation particularly between Syria on the one hand and Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinian Authority on the other. Its marker is to wait for Obama's settlement plan, how he will solve the problem of settlement freeze and above all the Golan issue. Lebanon will also be part of the agenda.
However, mitigation does not seem to be stable, especially as normalization concessions start to be made and the pressures on Syria become aggravated particularly with respect to the Golan issue as stipulated by Netanyahu. Syria might begin to retaliate, which could lead to a new phase in the Arab situation.
What has so far been demanded from Syria has not been approved by Damascus even at the level of the initiation of negotiations, despite Arab and international openness toward the country.
Saudi Arabia and a number of Arab states have been asked to take steps towards the normalization of relations with the Zionist entity in exchange for settlement freeze. This demand was initially rejected but then followed up by insinuations that the normalization of relations with the Zionist entity could commence as final status negotiations are initiated. This was made clear in the visit by Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to Washington and puts Saudi Arabia and Egypt in a very embarrassing situation. Particularly when it has been affirmed that tendencies to resist and reject this normalization have become uncontrollable, being as it is a disgraceful deal of normalization in exchange for temporary settlement freeze and an initiation of negotiations before coming to a solution. Therefore, there has to be a warning against any normalization in exchange for settlement freeze and final status negotiations.
In short, the Arab situation is altogether negative, weak and helpless in the face of pressures by Obama under the pretext of a "last chance." This weakness makes it incapable of forcing its will upon others, which might be the cause of more deterioration, internal feebleness or the explosion of the situation.
The popular situation on both Palestinian and Arab fronts as well as international public opinion will then no doubt reject Obama's settlement plan.
D. The European and International Stance
The USA and Europe are in disagreement regarding the solution to the economic crisis despite their cooperation due to a mutual involvement. Regardless, they are in the same trench and despite signs that they are finding their way out of the crisis; the latter will have profound and destructive consequences – similar to a patient who has been in intensive care and left hospital but with severe and chronic deterioration of their health.
European policy is in conformity with Obama's policy vis-à-vis Iran, Palestine and the Arabs.
Russia and China, contrary as they are to Obama's administration, particularly regarding Georgia and Ukraine for Russia and North Korea and Taiwan for China, will engage in bargains and deals with the Obama administration to cover up the settlement led by George Mitchell. When conflict is shifted to Iran, their attitudes will be dangerous and replete with double standards.
This should lead to the expectation of sharp developments in the situation in light of the conflict with Iran and the developments of the war in Afghanistan which America seems to be losing.
The balance of all these contrasting and intertwined elements related to the chances of success or failure of settlement could be considered as more or less having been achieved. It is, however, subject to infiltration by either side. For this reason, those who consider the probability of the failure of Obama's settlement plan will have to do their utmost to make it fail and they have a fair chance in this regard. However, beware of banking on the assumption that the settlement is by all means doomed to failure. This time, settlement is more serious and dangerous than ever.
Translated by Monjia Abdallah Abidi for MEMO
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.