President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reached a momentous decision Wednesday, March 20. They shelved their long argument over a potential unilateral Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program.
Instead they decided that in their current terms of office, they would focus on harboring the harmony and friendship befitting the two close allies. Even the incendiary Iranian issue was set to rest by an agreed formula, which DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources report was tailored to respect both their sensitivities.
The US recognized the principle of Israel’s right to independently defend itself against a perceived genuine threat from Iran – even if Washington does not share that perception.
In practice, however, Obama and Netanyahu emphasized the overriding importance of the unparalleled level of military and intelligence cooperation their governments had attained. It was understood, therefore, without being put into words, that the Netanyahu government would not risk jeopardizing this cherished bond by attacking Iran without a by-your-leave from Washington.
This bond it was agreed would be the key to deeper and broader military and intelligence cooperation between the US and Israel – not just in the present but well into the future.
(See the opening item in this issue).
No signs of intervention in Syria after chemical attack
“We have your back,” said President Obama at their joint news conference in Jerusalem Wednesday night, and pledged additional funds and technology – despite America’s economic difficulties – for developing Israel's missile interceptor systems such as Iron Dome, for which Washington has already advanced $203 million.
He also promised to appoint a team to work on the extension of the US military assistance program for Israel by a further 10-year period beyond the date of its expiry in 2017.
This extension would be highly pertinent to Israel’s sense of security against the menace of a nuclear-armed Iran and the threats posed by the Islamist regimes rising to power in the surrounding countries. Getting it approved in the coming year would provide the US President and Israeli Prime Minister with a shared legacy: a guarantee of long-term US support for Israel’s security after they leave office – in 2016 for Obama and Netanyahu too, if his coalition government lasts the course.
This message was relayed after their three-hour conversation to an audience of reporters and US and Israeli officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon.
Moving on to Syria, both Obama and Netanyahu appeared to be saying that neither the US nor Israel proposed stepping into Syria militarily to curb the civil war’s expansion to air raids over Lebanon and chemical attacks on Aleppo – both in the 48 hours before the US president’s arrival.
(See the article on the Syrian war)
No major peace initiatives, only small steps for the Palestinians
The US president and Israeli prime minister also appeared at one on the Palestinian issue – a far cry from the bitter frictions of yesteryear. Netanyahu repeated his acceptance of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian dispute whereby independent Palestine recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people. But no major initiatives were launcded, only small steps for bolstering the Palestinian Authority and propping up Mahmoud Abbas.
The PA was to be handed control over additional pieces of West Bank territory and the US would pump more aid into its bare coffers. The Palestinians in return would stop vilifying Israel at the UN and in other international institutions.
President Obama is to bid for Saudi and other Arabian Gulf endorsement of these steps. Abbas was encouraged to dust off the peace plan Saudi King Abdullah drafted in 2000 and have it re-endorsed at the Arab League summit in Doha on March 26-27 – with minor changes.
The original was adopted at the time by the Arab League and rejected by Israel. One of the key changes of the resubmitted blueprint is the placing of Jordan’s King Abdullah in charge of its execution.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources report that after the formality of Arab League ratification, the US, Israel and the PA will work together on the gradual steps agreed during the Obama visit.
Opening a door to federation or even confederation
The Jordanian monarch will join the effort after his role is approved by the Saudi king.
Those steps, though small, should keep the peace process continuously alive for the duration of President Obama's second term. If Israel and the Palestinians can be brought to the table, he would be credited as making the biggest contribution of any US President towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Introducing Jordan’s Abdullah to the Israeli-Palestinian process means –
1. That Jordanian security forces, especially their General Intelligence and Military Intelligence services, will make a comeback to Palestinian-controlled territory on the West Bank, alongside their US, British and Israeli opposite numbers;
2. The groundwork can be laid and institutions established for a potential federation between the Kingdom of Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
3. The option of a confederation between Israel, Jordan and the PA will come under close scrutiny as a framework for resolving the future of Jerusalem and the administrative oversight of the Holy Places sacred to three world faiths.
These contentious topics were notably absent from Obama’s joint statements with the prime minister, especially the intractable core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – Jerusalem, final borders, settlements, Palestinian refugees, future territorial links between the West Bank and Gaza and the extremist Hamas’s role in any future accommodation.
Gaza has its say by shooting four missiles
Gaza though was not ready to be shunted aside in this way. Thursday, the second day of the US President’s visit, as he prepared to visit Ramallah for talks with Hamas’s rivals, Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian Authority officials, four Qassam missiles flew from Gaza to the southern Israeli town of Sderot, battered by Palestinian rockets for a decade until the ceasefire of last November.
Property was damaged but no one was hurt
Hamas had made its point to Obama: Ignore us at your peril. We too must be at the table.
Many Americans were surprised by the relaxed friendliness and broad measure of understanding exhibited by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu from the moment the American visitor set foot on the tarmac of Ben Gurion airport. After years of disharmony, they appear to have reenacted the traditional strategic relationship binding the US and Israel, and even deepened their military and intelligence cooperation.
The question now is how this re-start will stand up to the test of the next Middle East crisis.