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A freshness in the Levant

Change,in the person of Barack Obama,is coming to the Middle East this week...

Written by Sudeep Paul |
June 3, 2009 2:14:51 am

Change,in the person of Barack Obama,is coming to the Middle East this week. It’s coming from a White House determined to break with the past. Putting its foot down on West Bank settlements is just the most visible point of the US-Israel confrontation. Were Mahmoud Abbas still able to command confidence as a representative of the Palestinians,one could say they were close to the finest hour since June 1967; were Binyamin Netanyahu Israel’s only voice,it would be experiencing its moment of greatest anxiety,as one Bush-era assumption after another is overturned by Obama,Hillary Clinton and George Mitchell.

But President Abbas is kept in place beyond his term by the West and Israel’s need for a sane Palestinian face to talk to whenever peace talks are resumed. Hamas,Islamic Jihad,et al have declared they would reject any deal Abbas might strike following his US visit last week. Not only is a Palestinian “unity government” — the lack of which makes peace talks pointless — still elusive but it remains just as impossible to make Hamas de jure recognise Israel,without which it won’t be talked to. Meanwhile,a new Palestinian government based in the West Bank was sworn in on May 19,dominated,naturally by the Fatah,and called “illegal”,naturally,by the excluded Hamas.

In Palestinian politics,therefore,little has changed; except that an extensive poll published on May 27 by Birzeit University,near Ramallah,showed that about 37 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza would vote for Abbas’s Fatah right now,as opposed to 23 per cent for Hamas. Collating the figures for both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,it’s 31 per cent for Fatah and just about 17 per cent for Hamas. To the extent that opinion polls are still trusted as at least an exercise in wish-fulfilment,this indicates that Hamas’s self-destructive course may have run itself out.

The point of departure is in the face-off between Obama and Netanyahu’s intransigent,Right-dominated government,as evidenced in Netanyahu’s Washington visit and thereafter. A hard enough push by Obama on halting all settlement activity,on the lines of the 2003 “roadmap to peace”,would unseat Netanyahu. But Israeli commentators say that Netanyahu brought this upon himself by giving conservatives in his cabinet the latitude he has — epitomised by Avigdor Lieberman and Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman proposing allegedly racist legislations such as the “Nakba law” and the “oath of loyalty.”

Netanyahu’s hands are full,within and without. The most he can offer right now is the removal of “outposts” deemed illegal even by Israeli law,but he can’t stop “natural growth” in existing settlements as sanctioned by the Bush administration. If he halts settlement activity altogether,it’s curtains for his government. Yet,he must offer Obama something. But his compromise has no takers in Washington.

A hard line by Israeli governments has usually paid off in the past. There are also justifiable doubts about how far Obama can really change West Asia’s modus operandi. But he has come to the problem early in his presidency,with a set of Dos and Don’ts. The fundamental disagreement is supposedly Obama’s stated goal of two states and Netanyahu’s resistance to it. True,if Tzipi Livni were prime minister,this friction might have been avoided,given Livni’s commitment to the two-state solution. Yet,on May 24,Netanyahu told his cabinet about making “some reservations about a Palestinian state in a final status agreement” — his first use of the term “Palestinian state” as PM,though he hasn’t approved of the idea. The disagreement is really a question of prioritisation. Netanyahu’s one-point agenda is the Iranian nuclear treat,convinced as he is that the crisis will come on his watch. He wants Iran to end its nuclear programme as a condition for talks with Palestinians. This is the inverse of Obama’s logic that re-starting the peace process will make it easier to pressure Iran.

For Obama,West Asia’s problems are intertwined. When he makes his speech in Cairo tomorrow he’ll be expected to make his grand gesture to the Arab world — a watershed in US policy. His strategy is to offer the Arab world the end of settlement activity in the West Bank. In return,the Arab world must shift towards a total acceptance of Israel. The Palestinians,for their part,must begin with an end to incitement against Israel. And Obama appears to have set a rough deadline even for Iran.

Despite Netanyahu’s historic clash with Bill Clinton,the Israeli PM is a political opportunist. In supporting this US president who is a first in many ways,he might lose his government,but mass unprecedented political capital to take the centre ground away from his centrist rivals in Kadima. The last thing he wants to do right now is attack Iran,since that would merely delay,but not destroy,its nuclear programme.

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