During its first three months in office, the Obama administration has repeatedly stressed how committed it is to a new peace agreement in the Middle East.
Its special envoy to the region, George Mitchell, recently visited Israel and the West Bank. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has traveled to the region as well.
But Israel’s new conservative government is taking an altogether different approach to any peace deal with the Palestinians — an approach that diverges significantly from the Obama administration’s.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to place Iran ahead of the Palestinian issue, and the new government has said that Israel will not move ahead with peace talks until the U.S. makes progress in stopping Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Worldfocus editorial consultant Peter Eisner takes a look at the meaning behind Israel’s posturing.
A few days short of 100 days into the Obama administration, it’s still early to track the direction of Middle East negotiations. It’s also too soon to mistake posturing for substance. The attempt by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to shift attention from the Palestinian question to Iran may not go very far.
He appears to be only one player in a simultaneous chess exhibition, in which a chess master –- President Obama in this case — moves from table to table, playing a dozen games with less weighty competitors at the same time.
Netanyahu has already heard from President Obama on the airwaves, and more directly from special envoy George Mitchell, that the United States clearly wants a two-state solution –- that is, a separate Palestinian state. He opposes that solution and apparently wants to change the subject.
“What’s going on here?” asked Haaretz correspondent Aluf Benn, in an analysis earlier this month that still rings true. “Clearly the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration have not yet developed discrete communication channels to let them coordinate their policy and avoid statements that would embarrass the other party.”
Not that Netanyahu’s mention of Iran should be taken lightly. There are hawks in Israel and the United States who advocate military action — and soon — against Iran if its nuclear aspirations are not contained. But Obama has been moving toward diplomacy with Iran, not only on the nuclear issue but also in an all-inclusive attempt to work on the problems of Iraq and Afghanistan at the same time.
It is unlikely that Netanyahu will be able to change the subject for long, even if he says today he won’t be working on the Palestinian issue until he sees positive developments on Iran. The White House has invited him, along with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington in May to work on the outlines of peace talks.
It sounds more like Netanyahu is looking to play from a position of strength. He’s probably read a report in Israel’s largest circulation daily, Yedioth Achronoth. Correspondent Shimon Shiffer played back some tough words by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, to an unamed Jewish leader: “In the next four years there is going to be a permanent status arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of two states for two peoples, and it doesn’t matter to us at all who is prime minister.”
Shiffer’s April 16 report sounds like the reverse of Netanyahu’s attempt to place Iran ahead of the Palestinian issue. He quoted Emanuel, who is highly regarded in Israel for his Israeli ties, saying that “Any treatment of the Iranian nuclear problem will be contingent upon progress in the negotiations and an Israeli withdrawal from West Bank territory.”
– Peter Eisner