Analysis: Will the US and Israel now be able to tango?

How compatible will the new PM be with Obama's high-decibel diplomacy?

February 10, 2009 00:10
3 minute read.
Analysis: Will the US and Israel now be able to tango?

Obama 248.88 . (photo credit: AP)


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In a bit of a role reversal for Washington, its denizens find themselves looking overseas to see how an election result will affect life here rather than vice versa, as Israel's political parties battle it out on Tuesday. The two main competitors certainly have programs and messages that sound different, with Kadima's Tzipi Livni emphasizing the need for peace and defending her negotiations with the Palestinians, while Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu criticizes those overtures and any signs of Israeli concessions. Of those contrasting melodies, and what they'll mean for American policy-makers, Livni's is far more soothing to Washington ears. US President Barack Obama wasted no time in rolling out an intensified Middle East diplomacy, sending new Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell to the region last month before he could know whom his Israeli partners would be. That suspense comes a day closer to resolution with Tuesday's election, even if the formation of the new government will take much more time. The Obama administration's high-decibel diplomacy could make for a smoother relationship with Livni and greater clashes with Netanyahu, who didn't have the easiest interaction as prime minister with former president Bill Clinton during the latter's energetic peace efforts in the 1990s - though Netanyahu knows Israeli voters value a smooth US-Israel relationship and has tried to assuage fears that he would cause friction. Netanyahu's skepticism on diplomacy "could create tension between a US government determined to push ahead and an Israeli government determined to dig in its heels," Jon Alterman and Haim Malka have assessed in an analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Yet Israelis from across the political spectrum see that as an undesirable outcome." They note that in pre-election interviews, "Netanyahu emphasized that he has had positive meetings with Obama, and he has been eager to demonstrate that he can work with both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton." But whatever the tone of the relationship, it doesn't mean the policy approaches of the Likud leader or the Kadima leader will be that different. Livni, who has voiced strong reservations about key Palestinian demands, is likely to take a slower - and harder - line on reaching a deal with the Palestinians than Obama; Netanyahu, for all his tough talk, was the one who signed many of the Oslo-era agreements giving land to Palestinians in his previous premiership. And they will both be dealing with an Israeli public - and concomitant Middle East reality - that isn't the most amenable to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. According to Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East hand and the author of The Much Too Promised Land, "the situation out there is so bad" that the idea that America would pressure Israel has its limits, particularly since little can be done on the Israeli-Palestinian front now. In fact, Miller argues that the likeliest place for alignment is Syria, since Israel has been open to that track and now Obama is encouraging outreach there where the previous administration shied from it - outreach that the Syrians term essential for any deal with Israel. And, as it happens, Netanyahu made overtures to Syria during his last turn in power. "He has demonstrated an interest in doing it in the past," notes Edward Djerejian, a former US ambassador to Syria, saying that for all of Netanyahu's campaign rhetoric opposing returning the Golan, his work on the issue in the past could be a sign of a possible confluence between his and Obama's governments. He points to previous negotiations between the two countries which addressed many of the outstanding issues, adding, "Both sides say there's a basic understanding of where things stand." Ultimately, of course, a deal on anything might be most dependent on Israeli politics. While Livni would aim to form a Center-Left government similar to the current coalition, which would appear to offer the potential to continue the current negotiating process, she's likely to have fewer options for putting together such a coalition - and she wasn't successful when she tried last fall. That means that she could be more vulnerable to her right-wing partners, limiting her moves. Netanyahu, for his part, has said he would prefer a national-unity government but should have the capacity for a right-wing alignment if all else fails. The latter would constrain his diplomatic maneuvering, but should he pull off the former, he'd be in a more stable position and have more popular legitimacy for steps toward a deal. "The history of peace-making in Israel is a history dominated by the Right, so Bibi fits right in," according to Miller. "There is an assumption that the election of a prime minister [such as Netanyahu] will be a disaster, when in fact it could lead to an opportunity."

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