Honeymoon over?

Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Barak Obama’s speeches at the UN General Assembly point to trouble down the line over the peace talks and Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu and Obama at Oval Office 370 (photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
Netanyahu and Obama at Oval Office 370
(photo credit: Koby Gideon/GPO)
WHAT BECAME abundantly clear at this year’s opening session of the UN General Assembly is that while Israeli and American leaders may share the same strategic goal – preventing a nuclear Iran – they have very different ideas on how to achieve it. So much so that rumbling friction between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama is threatening to put new strains on the special relationship.
For Netanyahu, the modus operandi against Iran should be heavier sanctions accompanied by a credible threat of force; for Obama, it is maintaining the current sanctions, accompanied by dialogue on conditions for lifting them. For Netanyahu, the Iranian offer of dialogue is merely a ruse to gain time; for Obama, it is an opportunity to make the world a safer place without the use of force. For Netanyahu, the Iranian and Palestinian issues are unconnected; for Obama, an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would facilitate the formation of an American-led coalition of moderate Sunni states to curb the regional influence of Shi’ite Iran and its allies.
In his UN address in late September, Obama spelled out a new Middle East policy. It was a paean to engagement, a 180-degree turnaround from the previous “pivot to Asia” and talk of retreat frothe region. He named four “core” regional interests – confronting aggression against allies; ensuring the free flow of energy; dismantling terrorist networks; and preventing the development or use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – and he declared that the US would be prepared “to use all elements of our power, including military force” to secure those interests.
CLEARLY, DRAMATIC regional events, the Arab upheaval, the military takeover in Egypt, the Syrian civil war and Iran’s giant strides towards the bomb have forced Obama to reassess. In doing so, he has evolved a twin policy – a combination of proactive multilateralism where possible, and big carrots and sticks where forced to act alone.
In the near term, Obama says, he will focus on two key issues: preventing Iran from getting the bomb and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Americans insist there is no linkage between the two – no threat that if Israel fails to come through on the Palestinian track, the US will pull back from dealing with Iran. And that is indeed the case.
But in Obama’s wider regional strategy there is a clear connection. He sees a USbrokered Israeli-Palestinian peace as a key building block towards rehabilitating America’s standing on the increasingly influential Arab street, and checking the spread of Iranian, Russian and Chinese regional influence. To create conditions for the Grand Coalition of Sunni moderates he sees as a necessary counterweight to Iran, Russia and China, he needs an IsraeliPalestinian accommodation.
Reconciliation between Israel and Turkey, a dominant Sunni player, would also help.
During his visit to Israel in March, Obama pressed Netanyahu on both counts – even forcing him to hold a conciliatory telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Obama’s visit to Israel was a classic case of the carrot-and-stick approach – albeit more carrot than stick for the time being.
He embraced Netanyahu as a bosom friend and later praised his “brave moves for peace.” He also embraced the Israeli people, insisting that they had nothing to fear in making peace. “Atem lo levad [You are not alone],” he declared.
To the Palestinians, he offered a $4 billion dollar investment program if they make progress towards a two-state solution with Israel. He has also taken the Palestinian position on borders – the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps – and behind the scenes suggested a trade-off in which Israel makes concessions on Jerusalem and the Palestinians forgo the right of refugee return.
The as yet unwielded stick on the IsraeliPalestinian track is the realization on both sides of the dire consequences of blame for failure. The next step could be Obama putting his own peace plan on the table and daring either side to reject it.
THE FLAW in Obama’s overall regional policy, however, is the widespread belief that when it comes to the crunch, he is not really prepared to play hardball. In both the Syrian and Iranian WMD cases, the alacrity with which he latched onto the diplomatic option was widely perceived as a show of inherent weakness.
Still, the Syrian case seems to offer an effective alternative model – the US and Russia acting in tandem to enforce the will of the international community.
Together, in forcing Syria to relinquish its huge arsenal of chemical weapons, they proved an irresistible combination. The US, it seems, is prepared to countenance increased Russian influence in return for concrete assistance. Obama hinted as much in his comments on the Syria deal in his UN speech. “Let us remember this is not a zero-sum endeavor,” he declared. “We’re no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”
Could this model be adapted to the Iranian nuclear weapons case? Unlikely.
But if it is, there could be issues for Israel.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has already linked neutralizing Iran’s nuclear program with similar steps against Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal.
It was Obama’s perceived weakness that prompted Netanyahu’s feisty UN speech in early October. He argued that his threat to strike Iran would help the international community keep the pressure on, while negotiating a possible deal. He also implied that in taking his tough stance, he had the tacit backing of the Arab Gulf states equally concerned that if it came to the use of force against Iran, America would back down the way it had over Syria.
Netanyahu’s tough stance came at a price. It left Israel as the lone military voice against Iran, after years of trying to convince the international community that nuclear weapons in the hands of a rogue Iranian regime was a global rather than an Israeli problem. It also amounted to a highprofile expression of limited confidence in America’s leadership, a move bound to rankle with the Obama Administration.
Moreover, it is hardly in the Israeli interest to make public comments that weaken perceptions of American leadership on issues of vital Israeli concern. Even if the prime minister is convinced the Iranians are playing a duplicitous game, he could have been less categorical and presented much the same bottom line in a more nuanced fashion.
The same is true of Netanyahu’s comments at the UN on the IsraeliPalestinian track. He said nothing to boost the renewed peace talks. He could have picked up on Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s call for a permanent settlement ending the conflict, extended a hand in friendship, and challenged the Palestinian leader to go the extra mile.
Instead, he merely repeated the dismissive point-scoring mantra that while he was prepared to make “historic concessions,” the Palestinians were not.
Unfortunately, on Obama’s two key immediate areas of concern in the Middle East – Israel-Palestine and Iran, which the Americans see as major elements of a new regional architecture they hope to create – Netanyahu, the leader who they believe could and should be helping them more than any other, is not quite on the same page.
This could spell trouble down the line.
Official Israeli and American spokesmen will say the strategic alliance has never been stronger, and military and intelligence cooperation never closer. But the ObamaNetanyahu honeymoon, which began at Ben-Gurion International Airport last March, is over.