Benjamin Netanyahu recently defied opinion polls and commentators by leading his Likud party to a convincing victory in the Israeli elections. A few days prior to the poll Netanyahu made a decisive intervention when he stated unequivocally that no Palestinian state would be created so long as he remained Prime Minister. Shortly before this Netanyahu had travelled to Washington at the invitation of Congressional Republicans to give a speech denouncing efforts led by the Obama administration aimed at reaching a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.
While Netanyahu’s re-election has been greeted with dismay by many, his victory does at least make one thing clear: above all other states in the region, it is Israel that poses the primary obstacle to peace in the Middle East. His victory at the polls also makes clear the choice that the Obama administration now faces in shaping its policy towards the region: work towards peace in the Middle East, or support Israel.
Israel and its Neighbours
The Obama administration – like all of its predecessors in recent times – has held fast to the position that strong support for Israel is not incompatible with working towards peace in the broader region. Israeli policy towards the Palestinians most graphically illustrates the fallacy of this stance. Netanyahu’s stated opposition to the creation of a Palestinian state in the election campaign may have represented a break with traditional rhetoric, but it accurately reflected the reality of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians for many years.
When Obama was elected in 2008 he used a high profile speech in Cairo to reaffirm America’s commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel and began efforts to re-launch the so-called ‘roadmap’ aimed at achieving this goal. Since that time the principal barrier to constructive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) has been the continued Israeli policy of building Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory of the West Bank and Jerusalem. Jewish settlements and the ‘settler-only’ roads that connect them have carved up the Palestinian territories into a series of cantons, making the establishment of a viable Palestinian state physically impossible. The settlements are regarded as illegal by the United Nations. Impervious to censure, Netanyahu maintained support for settlement building, leading to the end of negotiations with the PLO.
In the absence of negotiations Israel has continued its occupation of the West Bank, while launching periodic military assaults on Gaza in response to rocket attacks by Hamas. The Obama administration has consistently issued verbal condemnations of the settlement building programme and personal relations between the President and Netanyahu have become increasingly frosty. But at the same time the US has continued to provide generous military aid to Israel, blocked UN resolutions calling on Israel to comply with international law on settlements, and voted against Palestinian proposals to achieve statehood.
Obama’s original commitment to achieving peace between Israel and the Palestinians has been diverted by what now appears a more achievable goal – securing a negotiated settlement with Iran on the nuclear issue. Talks aimed at easing sanctions on Iran in return for verifiable guarantees that it is not developing a nuclear weapons programme have gained wide international support, with the EU, China and Russia all backing the initiative. Throughout this process Israel has done all in its power to derail the negotiations. Israel is of course entitled to take a different view of the potential threat posed by Iran. But the problem with the Israeli position – as Obama stated following Netanyahu’s speech to Congress – is that it offers no viable alternative to a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. Israel’s condemnation of Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions is also of course undermined by the inconvenient fact of its own nuclear arsenal. If a nuclear arms race were to develop in the Middle East, it will have been Israel that started it.
Obama thus has two broad options in his final two years in office: work with the Palestinians, Iran and others to confront the major challenges in the Middle East, or continue providing Israel with the military aid and diplomatic protection that have allowed it to obstruct efforts towards peace in the region in recent years. Choosing the former does not mean failing to support the right of Jewish people to live in the Middle East peacefully alongside Arabs, but it does mean standing with the international community in holding Israel to account for its violations of international law and human rights, supporting Palestinians in their bid for statehood, and doing all in its power to achieve a diplomatic solution with Iran regardless of Israel’s objections.
Which path will Obama choose? Following Netanyahu’s election the administration announced that it was reassessing its relationship with Israel. But Obama was also keen to assert his commitment to preserving Israel’s security. Most likely given Obama’s record of adopting extreme caution in all issues he confronts, he will try to maintain the tortuous balancing act of supporting Israel while simultaneously working towards peace in the Middle East. Try he may, but clinging on to the illusion that these two goals are not mutually exclusive will be that much harder following Netanyahu’s re-election.
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