Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week saw the lifting of sanctions against Iran; a speech by US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro that implied Israel has two different sets of laws in the West Bank, one for Israelis and one for Palestinians; and an EU statement that called settlements an obstacle to peace that threatens to make a two-state solution impossible, but stopped short of a motion that would end all agreements with Israel at the Green Line.
All three can be tied together.
When US President Barack Obama spoke to the UN General Assembly in 2013, he said that his two main foreign policy objectives would be to reach a nuclear accord with Iran and to strive for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. Now that the first stage of the Iran accord has been signed, sealed and implemented, Israel can expect to come under concerted pressure over its settlement policy.
The question, as always, is what role will the US play with exactly one year to the day until the end of Barack Obama’s second presidency, and how indicative Shapiro’s speech was of the direction American policy will take.
I spoke to Prof. Eytan Gilboa, a senior researcher at the BESA Center for strategic studies at Bar Ilan University and an expert in US-Israel relations, to try to understand what the last year of Obama’s presidency will look like for Israel.
Gilboa says Obama will not be a lame duck president and that the prevailing view that we have just one year to go and that elections will restrict Obama is wrong.
“This is, after all,” he says “the president who stated he intends to achieve a comprehensive resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
For Gilboa, statements by Obama over the past year that he does not expect any breakthrough in talks between Israel and the Palestinians are mere camouflage.
Obama will, he says, despite all his previous failures, make at least one more effort and furthermore his final year in office will be motivated by the wish to develop his legacy and to prepare the ground for his future.
There is talk of his desire to become UN secretary-general.
It is in that context that Shapiro’s remarks should be examined. Gilboa says Shapiro has always been very careful to maneuver between Netanyahu and Obama and that the sharp tone of his speech this week to the INSS was likely dictated by the White House and or the State Department.
The gradual increment in rhetoric is a new step in the American strategy to try to force changes in Israeli policy by applying pressure on public opinion. The American thinking, says Gilboa, is that if you can get the EU, human Rights organizations and the UN all to focus on one issue, the settlements, then you can get Israel to make concessions that will pave the way for an agreement.
It is, says Gilboa, a policy that can only backfire. “I don’t think the Obama administration has ever understood Israeli public opinion and politics,” he says. “The more the US and the EU apply pressure, the more we will see resistance in Israeli society, and secondly, this will strengthen the Palestinian resistance to make any concession and to make any move that could facilitate negotiations, let alone an agreement.”
Shapiro’s remarks drew a furious response from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called them “unacceptable and wrong.” But Netanyahu should not have been surprised. There really was nothing new in Shapiro’s address, not even his comment on double legal standards. A look back at Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments to the Saban Forum in Washington just over a month ago shows similar rhetoric.
Talking about what could happen in the absence of a two-state solution, Kerry asked: “Would millions of Palestinians be given the basic rights of Israeli citizens including the right to vote, or would they be relegated to a permanent underclass? Would the Israelis and Palestinians living in such close quarters have segregated roads and transportation systems with different laws applying in the Palestinian enclaves? Would anyone really believe they were being treated equally?” The Obama administration appears to be amplifying its tone by questioning not just the legitimacy of the settlement enterprise but the very rule of law in the West Bank.
It is depicting an apartheid reality that will deepen Israel’s negative image and create further pressure.
“One very strong element of the US-Israeli relationship is shared values, and that was always an Israeli asset and vis-a-vis Europe as well. When you begin to question values you really begin to undermine one of the most significant foundations of the Israeli- American relationship,” says Gilboa.
“What the Obama administration is telling us,” he ads, “ is that if you continue this way then this could negatively affect one of the most important foundations of the American-Israeli relationship.”
The Kerry and Shapiro comments and the EU motion, which Israel, for the moment, successfully managed to tone down with the surprising help of Greece and other countries, are just the beginning of a major attack on Israeli policy.
The world has accepted a nuclear-threshold Iran – it hasn’t accepted the Israeli settlement enterprise.