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Reverting to type
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 22 - 07 - 2010

Domestic pressure is one reason behind the US-Israeli rapprochement but so is a failure of policy, writes Graham Usher in New York
After a cool year United States-Israeli relations are again warming. Since their "kiss-and-make-up" meeting in Washington on 6 July, Barack Obama has made no call on Binyamin Netanyahu to extend Israel's so-called settlement freeze in the West Bank beyond its expiry in September. Instead, the US president has squeezed the Palestinians to move from indirect "proximity" talks with the Americans to direct negotiations with Israel.
So far to no avail. On 17 July Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said there would be little point in talks unless Israel accepted the 1967 armistice lines as the "basis" of the borders of a future Palestinian state with "international" -- rather than Israeli -- troops to police them. Netanyahu has rejected both conditions. So, currently, has Obama.
The Israeli-American embrace has little to do with conditions in the Palestinian occupied territories, which go from bad to worse. (On 13 July, Israel ended a de facto moratorium on house demolitions by destroying six Palestinian homes in occupied East Jerusalem). It has everything to do with powerful domestic constituencies neither leader can ignore.
Netanyahu may distrust Obama -- and certain of his coalition parties loathe him -- but the Israeli army is anxious that political disputes over settlements and Jerusalem are changing American military perceptions of Israel from an ally to liability.
Israeli military chiefs were especially alarmed by the US decision at a non- proliferation summit in May to support an Egyptian proposal for a conference in 2012 on a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, apparently a shift in America's traditional acceptance of Israel's "ambiguous" status as an undeclared nuclear state.
Since then -- according to Israeli Army Radio -- Obama has not only sent assurances that there is "no change" in US policy regarding Israel as a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). He has guaranteed sales of nuclear technology, an exception enjoyed only by India, another NPT outlaw.
More significantly, on 6 July Obama said, "only Israel can determine its security needs," a statement some read as granting Tel Aviv military freedom of action against Iran's nuclear programme should US-led sanction policies fail to reverse it.
Obama's domestic constraints, if anything, are even more formidable. Polls show Obama's Democratic Party facing a meltdown in the mid-term Congressional elections on 2 November, potentially losing control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
The causes are overwhelmingly homegrown: America's poor are hurt by the lack of economic recovery and the wealthier are unimpressed by Obama's signature healthcare and Wall Street re-regulation laws. But the Republicans have been adept at raising Obama's cool relations with Israel as the cutting edge of broader critique of an amorphous foreign policy.
Israel is also a domestic issue in US politics. Following Obama's spat with Netanyahu in March -- when the president basically said Israel's settlement policies were endangering American national security in the region -- large majorities in the House and Senate signed a letter which essentially sided with the Israeli prime minister against their own administration. Should the Democrats lose Congress the territory will become even more hostile.
This is why Obama wants industrial peace in Israel-Palestine this side of November. The hope -- held still by some -- is that after the mid-term elections he will return as the aggressive president of March and perhaps present his own peace plan.
But this is to assume Obama has a peace plan. In fact -- say sources -- his goal since taking office has been to get Israel-Palestine relations back to where they were in December 2008, when Ehud Olmert was Israeli prime minister and Abbas was amending unofficial offers of an Israeli withdrawal from 93.5 per cent of the West Bank.
Initially the means was an "outreach" to the Muslim world and call for a settlement freeze in the hope this would either force Netanyahu's hand or bring about a more centrist Israeli government. It did neither. The more Netanyahu pushed back against the new "anti-Israeli", "pro-Arab" US president the more popular he became among his ultra-nationalist and religious constituents.
Now the means is no longer to press but appease, lavishing Israel with military hardware, defences and security guarantees against a massively hyped Iranian "threat". This is not only to deter Israel from any Iraq or Syria-like attack. It is because "a secure Israel is better able to make tough decisions that will need to be made to make peace," says a US government official.
It never has in the past. In fact, the more Obama parades Iran as his "number one foreign policy priority" the more he reinforces the perception -- in Israel and elsewhere -- that a nuclear programme that has yet to "weaponise" poses a greater threat to regional peace than Israel's ongoing colonisation of other people's lands.
These are not peace plans or even policies. They are reactions to a state Obama has failed to manage or reprimand, even when it acts contrary to American interests. Should the Congress elections be as dire as the forecasts, the remaining years of Obama's first term will be about survival, not change. And Palestinians will probably be told to wait until a second term for an Obama peace plan. Meanwhile, Israel will be implementing its plans in Gaza, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem.


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