Mitchell's visit is in keeping with Obama's preferred method of problem-solving - building coalitions.
By HERB KEINON
Former US President George W. Bush was often criticized for acting as the world's sheriff: bringing his form of justice to the range with his pistols a-blazing, and the hell with what anyone else thought.
New US President Barack Obama has made it clear that his is a much different style. Not cut in the lone, solitary sheriff mold, Obama favors the posse method: organize a group of people to go after the prey.
Make no mistake about it, for both Bush and Obama, the prey remains the same: Iran. What has changed dramatically is how to go about capturing it, and it is through this prism that the visit of US special envoy George Mitchell this week must be seen.
While the overall Obama foreign policy game plan is still being formulated, certain trends have definitely emerged. The first is that the new president's number one priority is the economy, and the economy is intricately linked with foreign policy, because US leverage, strength and prestige overseas flow largely from its economy. A strong dollar means more foreign policy clout abroad; a weak dollar, less US influence.
Secondly, the focus of Obama's foreign policy is currently on Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan - and Iran. This, however, does not mean that he has forgotten the Israeli-Arab conflict. Mitchell's visit is testimony that he has not. It's just that our conflict is now a tool to be used in trying to deal with the other - bigger - problems, primarily Iran.
Obama's way of dealing with Iran, as is his way of dealing with the economy, is by building coalitions. The new president is the Great Coalition Builder, or at least he's trying to be. He wants to build a coalition around Iran that will include the US, Europe, Russia, China, the Arab countries and Israel.
That is a lot of variegated parties to put under one net, and in order to get the Arab countries involved, he will be asking Israel to do what it can to get them to join in.
The expectation in Jerusalem is that the new US administration will ask Israel to toe the line. For instance, if the Sunni Arab countries, more petrified right now of Iran than of Israel, make the Arab peace initiative a condition for entering into this grand coalition, then Israel will be asked to look at it favorably.
In other words, what Obama is saying to Israel is, "I am putting together a broad global coalition that wants to make peace in the Middle East and stop the Iranians. What is your contribution?"
AND IT is clear to a certain degree what the administration wants Israel to contribute. It wants the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to show signs that it will remove settlement outposts and tamp down settlement construction, particularly beyond the security barriers.
It also wants Israel to simply "not rock the boat," to keep a low profile. Although this seems something that should be relatively easy for Netanyahu to do, much easier - for instance - than removing some settlement outposts, it isn't, considering that one of his key coalition partners, and his foreign minister, is Avigdor Lieberman, not exactly a low-profile guy.
Lieberman has already shown, during his maiden address at the Foreign Ministry earlier this month, that he has no plans to be a shrinking violet. The US expectation is for Netanyahu to keep his foreign minister in line.
Indeed, trying to figure out what, and how much, Israel can contribute to cobbling together the US coalition against Iran is part of what the Netanyahu team is working on right now, as it engages in its "policy review."
Government sources said recently that it is likely that Netanyahu, currently going over all elements of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians, including the status of the road map and what was agreed upon in the negotiations between the Olmert government and the PA, will come up with some of his own diplomatic initiatives to take to Washington for his first meeting with Obama sometime in May.
Netanyahu's apparent interest in drawing up an initiative of his own seems influenced by the experience of former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who, to a large extent, came out with the disengagement plan to counter other initiatives that were on the table at the time, including the Saudi peace initiative of 2002 and the Geneva initiative.
"When Sharon saw the Arab peace plan, and the Geneva initiative, he said he had to come up with his own initiative," said Sharon's former spokesman, Ra'anan Gissin. "That was one of the driving forces to the disengagement. He said that sooner or later the US was going to ask what Israel had to propose."
DESPITE THE wishes of some, Mitchell - according to assessments in Jerusalem - did not come to town this week to read Israel the riot act.
Both the new US administration and the new Israeli government are smart enough to realize that it is in neither party's interest to have a face-to-face confrontation. Besides, one source close to Netanyahu asked, what exactly are they going to fight about right now?
Outside of very broad outlines, no one yet knows for sure what the Netanyahu diplomatic program will look like. Sure, Lieberman said in his speech at the Foreign Ministry that the country was not obligated by the Annapolis process, but in the same breath he also said it was committed to the road map that calls for a two-state solution.
Netanyahu, for his part, has been exceedingly careful not to say anything at all publicly about his diplomatic ideas, beyond painting general strokes in his Knesset inaugural address.
That address should be considered carefully.
"My Government," Netanyahu said, "will act vis-Ã -vis the Palestinian Authority to achieve peace on three parallel tracks: economic, security and political. We strive to assist with the accelerated development of the Palestinian economy and in developing its economic ties with Israel. We will support a Palestinian security mechanism that will fight terror, and we will conduct ongoing peace negotiations with the PA, with the aim of reaching a final status arrangement.
"We have no desire to control another people; we have no wish to rule over the Palestinians. In the final status arrangement, the Palestinians will have all the authority needed to govern themselves, except those which threaten the existence and security of the State of Israel. This track - combining the economic, security and political - is the right way to achieve peace. All previous attempts to make shortcuts have achieved the opposite outcome and resulted in increased terror and greater bloodshed. We choose a realistic path, positive in approach and with a genuine desire to bring an end to the conflict between us and our neighbors."
Where, exactly, in that address are the "fighting words" with the US? What exactly in those comments, again a very broad outline, will tempt the US - as some are suggesting - to reassess its ties with Israel?
Some are dying to see such a reassessment, and would love to see heavy pressure on Israel. For instance, Harvard University's Stephen Walt, co-author of the damning book, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, penned for the readers of the Foreign Policy magazine Web site, a "user's guide" for putting pressure on Israel, from "changing the rhetoric," to "supporting a UN resolution condemning the Occupation," to "reducing US purchases of Israeli military equipment."
But just because Walt - and a number of others with a high media profile - wish it, does not necessarily make it US foreign policy.
NETANYAHU UNDERSTANDS the need to work together with the US government, and will look for a way to do so. Ways will be explored to find a formula to bridge the Obama administration's belief in a two-state solution, and the Netanyahu vision that seems to be of a Palestinian state-minus, meaning a state that will be demilitarized, not be able to form treaties with countries like Iran, and not have complete control over its own air-space, water or electromagnetic spectrum.
Will it be easy? Obviously not. But will it mean a reassessment of US ties toward Israel, of the kind that some like Walt seem to be advocating? Also, obviously not.
When then US president Gerald Ford and his secretary of state Henry Kissinger broached a reassessment of ties in 1975, the relationship between the two countries was much, much different. The ties have flourished and become much more intimate, close and intertwined over the last third of a century. Israel and the US are coming off of 16 years of very close ties, through both the Clinton and Bush administrations, and there is a Congress and public opinion that is extremely favorable.
A Gallup Poll taken in April 1975, the year of the Ford-Kissinger threat of a reassessment, asked Americans where their sympathies lay - with Israel or the Arab states? At that time, 37 percent said Israel, and 8% went with the Arab states, a 29-point differential.
A similar poll taken in February, after Operation Cast Lead, found that 59% of Americans said their sympathies were more with Israel, and 18% said their sympathies were with the Palestinians, a 41-point difference.
That strong pro-Israeli sentiment, a sentiment even more strongly reflected in Congress, is not the type of attitude that gives birth to - as some fear, and others hope for - an administration that will advocate a policy of pushing Israel against the wall. And, by the way, three months into the Obama administration, there is no real indication, outside of noise in the media, that pushing Israel to the wall is where this administration wants to go. Disagreements over some issues should not be confused with a collision course.
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