US President Barack Obama met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday (6 July) to discuss, among other things, ways of brokering direct peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu has continued to insist on direct talks, despite his refusal to meet the basic Palestinian demand for a complete freeze on illegal settlement construction. The timetable for indirect talks and the 10 month moratorium on settlement construction both expire in September and it is thought that Netanyahu will come under pressure from the Obama administration to extend the latter. However, with the US mid- term elections looming, it is yet to be seen whether Obama will risk another public falling out with Netanyahu.
Tuesday’s meeting is expected to have been very different to the cold reception Netanyahu received during his last visit to the White House in March. The March meeting came on the heels of the Israeli announcement of new settlement activity in East Jerusalem which embarrassed the US deeply at a critical time in their negotiation efforts. Conversely, the latest highly publicised invitation from the White House was hand delivered to Netanyahu by the US Chief of Staff himself. After months of very public disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu with neither willing to appear to back down, sources say that both are keen to make this meeting work and to regain trust.
However, in the face of the increasingly reckless posturing of the current Israeli government, including its many strategic blunders, warmongering, obfuscating stance on peace negotiations, policies to Judaise Jerusalem, settlement policies and human rights abuses, many feel that the US should hold its ground. In a commentary published last week by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, Anthony H. Cordesman argued that it was “time Israel realized that it has obligations to the United States, as well as the United States to Israel, and that it become far more careful about the extent to which it test the limits of US patience and exploits the support of American Jews.” Israel, he added, “should show enough discretion to reflect the fact that it is a tertiary US strategic interest in a complex and demanding world.”
This sentiment reflects critical debate that emerged following the Gaza invasion which questioned whether the US should step back from its “special” relationship with Israel and re-assess policies toward it which often sideline domestic issues as well as America’s own national interest. In March, US military commander General David Petraeus briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was one of the major causes of instability in the Middle East and Asia and that it “foments anti-American sentiment due to a perception of US favouritism for Israel”. He claimed that the lack of progress in peace negotiations “presented distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests.”
The CSIS commentary asserts that the Israeli government needs to show greater sensitivity to US strategic concerns with the understanding that its actions affect US interests directly. It also asserts that Israel should understand that the long-term nature of the US–Israeli relationship will depend on Israel seeking peace actively and a clear understanding that the US opposes settlement expansion and retention, Judaisation efforts and any unilateral Israeli attack on Iran.
Cordesman highlights correctly that unwavering US commitment to Israel is based on guilt over the holocaust and a consequent presumption of moral and ethical obligation rather than shared regional and global strategic interests. Even so, Israel’s ability to influence hugely US domestic policy goes no small way towards guaranteeing US support.
Moreover, framed in the context of the upcoming mid-term congressional elections, the Obama administration’s conciliatory stance and keenness for Tuesday’s meeting to go smoothly, explains Netanyahu’s cocky new self-assurance. After all, he has managed to ride out the storm of US anger without bending an inch to Obama’s will. Within the Jewish community, there is a lot of anger directed at Obama and disappointment at his policies on Israel. It would appear that efforts to pacify Netanyahu reflect fears that the democrats will lose Jewish votes in the elections as well as need to be in Israel’s good books to secure campaign contributions from lobby groups like AIPAC. Already, many democratic senators say they will not seek re-election because of a lack of funds.
Nevertheless, Obama may be sceptical about Netanyahu, doubting his commitment to peace and negotiations, while Netanyahu sees the Obama administration as lacking in commitment to Israel compared to previous governments; yesterday’s meeting looks increasingly like a case of “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours”. Netanyahu is under pressure at home and a vote taken by the Knesset on Monday gives lawmakers the power to veto any extension of the moratorium, removing that right from his government. It is obvious that his right-wing coalition partners are eager for the ban to expire and for settlement building to resume. Netanyahu’s credibility at home rests on his promise that construction will be allowed to resume and a recently launched settler campaign slogan “A promise is a promise, a date is a date and on September 26 we start building again” is intended to hold him to this.
Is Israel a strategic liability for the US? All the evidence suggests that indeed it is. Will the US press Israel at this point to concede to Palestinian demands for an extension on the moratorium? All the evidence suggests that it most certainly will not.