By rejecting US President Barack Obama's proposal for Israel and its troops to pull back from the West Bank to behind the indefensible 1967 lines, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu lands in the company of eleven Middle East and North African rulers who spurned Washington's Middle East policy in the six months of the unfolding Arab uprising. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was the only one to keep faith with Obama and he was pushed out for his pains.
Barack Obama's presentation of his Middle East vision Thursday, May 19 had three immediate results:
1. Every surviving regional leader was confirmed in his determination to keep his distance from US administration policies;
2. Another nail was driven in the coffin of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process;
3. The fuel that was poured on regional tensions increased the prospects of an Israel-Palestinian or an Israeli-Arab war this year.
No Israeli politician can afford to back away from the demand that Israel retain a security presence and defensible borders along its eastern boundary and, even more so, on the West Bank in any future peace accord. This fundamental principle was not denied by opposition leaders Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz even as they poured boiling oil on the prime minister's head for getting into an argument with the US president.
But this repudiation is exactly what Obama wants.
The notion that Israel can achieve security through peace talks is a pipe dream because no Palestinian negotiator will think of seeking fewer concessions from Israel than the ones laid down by the US president. He will simply use the speech as a starting-point for the biggest squeeze Israel has ever faced.
Obama saw this maxim played out in his first two years in office: First, he said Netanyahu must freeze West Bank settlement construction. The Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, when he first heard about it, found the demand absurd – it had never been put to any former prime minister either by Washington or the Palestinians. But after Obama led the way, Abbas could demand no less. So he shrugged and turned this demand into a useful pretext in his maneuvers for wriggling out of talking to Israel.
The Israeli Prime Minister after practically begging the Palestinians to sit down and talk for two years has now put his foot down against the new Obama proposals. If he stands by this refusal, he leaves the vast region stretching across the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and North Africa without a single political, military or royal ruler willing to accept Obama's new policy principles. The only possible exception may be Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan.
The regional anti-Obama opposition falls into two camps:
The largest consists of eight former American allies, some of them ex-strategic partners, which is headed by the Saudi royal family.
A leading Saudi spokesman Nawaf Obaid brought the Riyadh-Washington rupture out in the open for the first time on May 16 in the form of a Washington Post op-ed.
"In some issues, such as counterterrorism and efforts to fight money laundering, the Saudis will continue to be a strong US partner," he wrote. "In areas in which Saudi national security or strategic interests are at stake, the kingdom will pursue its own agenda. The oil for security formula is history… The special relationship may never be the same…”
Saudi King Abdullah has already swept the half a dozen GCC (Cooperation Council of the Arab States of the Gulf) behind the separate security and strategic policies he is pursuing independently of the US and often diametrically opposed to Obama's course. He has invited Jordan, Morocco and Yemen to join the group.
The suggestion put by Jordanian monarch Abdullah II to Obama this week that the US transfer its sponsorship of the Israel-Palestinian issue to the GCC underscored the rising power of the new Gulf grouping and was firmly rejected.
The second camp consists of four anti-US Arab rulers, Syria's Bashar Assad, the Libyan Muammar Qaddaf, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa of Bahrain, who have resorted to armed violence to suppress the pro-democracy movements sponsored by President Obama.
Saudi Arabia is propping the Bahraini and Yemen regimes up with cash, arms, military assistance and intelligence. All four are determined to do whatever it takes to avoid the fate that befell Hosni Mubarak.
The only leaders who until Thursday, May 19, stood out against joining both those camps were the military council ruling Egypt and the Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The generals in Cairo nod obediently when faced with demands from Washington and do nothing.
The Palestinian leader called the Obama speech "disappointing" in that no timeline or diplomatic mechanisms were offered. The US President poured scorn on Abbas' plan to seek unilateral UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September, hoping to shut the door on yet another ploy for avoiding peace talks with Israel. The Palestinian leader may well defy him.
Abbas, even after losing his key patron Mubarak, is still juggling several balls in the hope of pushing Israel into a corner. Netanyahu, for his part, having stayed passive in the face of the new currents blowing in from Washington and the Arab revolt, has reached crunch time with the US president without strong cards.
A falling-out between the White House and the Israeli prime minister will also box Abbas into a choice of which anti-Obama Arab camp to jump into – the group led by Saudi Arabia or the Syrian group which also includes Hamas with whom he has just signed a unity pact.
In the long run, that pact may have saddled him with undesirable options.