Washington infighting mutes Netanyahu-Obama differences
In less than a month, aides in Washington and Jerusalem have transmuted the head-on clash forecast for the first meeting between Binyamin Netanyahu has Israel’s prime minister and US president Barack Obama Monday, May 18, into a warm, amicable encounter, debkafile‘s political analysts say.
This is less thanks to the Likud prime minister having softened his positions on Iran and the Palestinian issue, more to the political furor gripping Democratic Washington and the fraying of the president’s key Middle East policies: Expectations of constructive dialogue with Tehran have receded, the Turkish-Syrian get-together Obama fostered has turned its back on Washington and the Palestinians are incapable of uniting on power-sharing or representation.
Options for curtailing Iran’s nuclear program will be tossed back and forth at length, according to Netanyahu’s national security adviser Uzi Arad. He has said that so long as the Islamic Republic never gets its hands on a bomb, it is immaterial how this objective is achieved.
The US president has not abandoned his call for a Palestinian state. But he knows he will be blocked by the prime minister’s formula which says the end-product of peacemaking must rest on mutuality: If they want a state, the Palestinians must recognize Israel as the Jewish people’s state and respect Israel’s security needs (“no Hamastan,” as he puts it), which means a demilitarized territory.
Both know that even Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah, least of all the rejectionist Hamas, objects strongly to both propositions.
The Jewish settlement issue is here to stay: Every past US president has routinely told every Israeli government of every stripe that settlement activity must be frozen. Nothing much ever happened even though the Sharon government unilaterally pulled Israeli communities and troops out of the Gaza Strip and the northern tip of the West Bank in 2002. In any case, the US and Israel have never agreed on the boundaries where Jerusalem should end and the West Bank begin.
The Israeli prime minister will suggest that it is time for moderate Arab governments seeking a role in Middle East peacemaking to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, thereby moving the Israel-Palestinian process to a regional footing.
The visiting Israeli premier might get away with much more than he expected because of a crop of headaches besetting the White House:
1. debkafile‘s Iranian sources report that circles in the US administration have begun to entertain serious doubts about the wisdom of entering into negotiations with Iran after its government deceived the secret US envoys acting for the release of US journalist Roxana Saberi. (Among them Vali Reza Nasr, a veteran diplomat of Iranian origin, who is Richard Holbrooke’s deputy on Afghanistan and Pakistan).
She left the country after a Tehran court last week commuted her eight-year sentence as an accused American spy to a two-year suspended sentence.
When the affair first broke, US intelligence watchers assumed it had been drummed up by Iranian ultra-extremists in the Revolutionary Guards and clergy to sabotage the forthcoming dialogue with the US.
But Washington has since discovered it was a conspiracy hatched at the highest level – spiritual ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s bureau – to falsely incriminate Saberi by planting on her a classified document.
Some Washington officials now have second thoughts about negotiating with a government ready to show bad faith to the point of indulging in this sort of underhand trickery for undoing its opponent.
2. A sense of foreboding clouds Washington’s hopes for Lebanon’s June 7 election and nothing good is expected from Iran’s presidential vote on June 12.
Syrian president Bashar Assad has sidestepped every effort by Obama’s special envoys to Damascus to persuade him to keep his hands off Lebanon. He is clearly helping Iran’s stooge Hizballah and its Christian ally Gen, Michel Aoun, to rig the election for removing the pro-Western government. Their victory will install Syrian-Iranian candidates in Beirut as the power in the land.
A debacle in Beirut would put the United States at a disadvantage in talks with Iran.
Even worse, Washington must face up to the Iranian negotiating team led by the radical West-hater Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who appears to be a shoo-in for re-election as president.
3. If direct US-Iranian diplomacy fails to deter Tehran from uranium enrichment, the US cannot fall back on sanctions tough enough to stifle the regime economically and strategically, because Russia, China and Berlin will not play ball. Obama will be left with only one trump card, a military option whether American or Israeli.
4. US administration strategists are also disenchanted by the Turkish-Syrian axis they promoted. Turkish prime minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan and Assad are happy to team up – but not in the US interest in Iraq or any other Middle East arena. Quite the opposite: Assad has ordered his security agencies to open the door to Iraq for more al Qaeda suicides – now increased from a handful before to between 20 and 30 a month.
By fostering the Turkish-Syrian alliance Obama did more harm than good: He put backs up in Cairo and Riyadh which he hopes to pacify when he visits Egypt on June 4.
5. While the US president has not abandoned the two-state formula, he is not blind to the fact that the unending feud between Palestinian factions leaves the Palestinians with no representative body able to put the formula into effect.
He is therefore likely to follow George W. Bush’s tactic – another policy reversal which will be unpopular in his own party – of leaving Palestinian statehood on the table as an option while focusing on economic and security shots in the arms for the West Bank. This is an option that Netanyahu can live with.
6. Alongside the ongoing struggle to fight off recession, Washington is gripped by an outcry in parts of the Democratic Party over two Obama administration policy reversals in a week to Bush-era practices in the war on terror: the revival of tribunals for Guantanamo Bay inmates and the non-publication of photographs recording abuses by US soldiers.
Furthermore, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is locked in a divisive dispute with a close Obama confidant, Central Intelligence Director Leon Panetta, over her charge that the agency misled her on waterboarding and his insistence that she was truthfully briefed. Other heated issues, like abortion, are gaining developing.
With all this going on, it is hard to see the US president giving his full attention to focused argument on Middle East issues with the Israeli prime minister.
Netanyahu will also be talking to defense secretary Robert Gates, secretary of state Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Gen. James Jones. All these conversations will most likely produce anodyne harmony on traditionally shared ground, smiling agreements to disagree on other issues and a flock of joint teams to narrow differences and improve channels of communication between Washington and Jerusalem.