Is Obama prepared to exert pressure on Israel?
By Jamal Bittar | Friday, 02.05.2010, 06:59 PM

The recent concerted push to restart the stalled peace process between the Palestinians and Israelis has been complicated by Israel's continual construction of settlements in the West Bank and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand that Israel maintain a military presence along the West Bank's border with Jordan.

Palestinians survey a building destroyed in an Israeli air strike, at an abandoned airport in the southern Gaza Strip February 3, 2010. Israel launched air strikes in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday striking tunnels along the border with Egypt and an abandoned building, Hamas officials said.         REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

We all remember how, back in the late 1990s, when Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel for the first time, Bill Clinton, then the U.S. president, was trying to make progress on the Middle East peace process by securing concessions from Israel, notably in the building of settlements in the Occupied Territories. Netanyahu tried every trick in the book to avoid such concessions, as well as in the matter of negotiating with Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestinian authority. He made an enemy of President Clinton and played the Republican Congress against the Democrat president. This directly led to the collapse of Netanyahu's government and his fall from office.

Now events have come full circle. Netanyahu is back in power and he once again confronts an American president keen to make progress on the peace front. The Obama administration has been calling on Israel to make good on a settlement freeze commitment dating to the 2003 Bush-era Road Map. Netanyahu has been unwilling to do anything of the sort. He sought to codify a set of exemptions to a settlement freeze or in plainer English, guidelines for ongoing settlement expansion, new neighborhoods and outposts.

Moreover, Netanyahu's jargon regarding the settlements needs translation -- and the translation is that such commitments are meaningless. Over 40 percent of the West Bank is already within the municipal jurisdiction of the settlements, even though only about 2 percent is currently built up. So "no new land confiscation" is an empty and irrelevant gesture. For a full settlement freeze to really be meaningful, it would have to include a prohibition on advancing permits for planning and zoning of new settlements, and it would have to deal with the entirety of the settlement infrastructure.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 31, 2010.                  REUTERS/Jim Hollander/Pool

During his recent meeting with George Mitchell, Netanyahu seemed confident and determined to avoid taking any meaningful steps to an equitable resolution of the conflict. The combination of Obama's political clock (midterms, then reelection), more pressing American priorities, American timidity and internal Palestinian divisions will shield him from having to make hard political choices. If history repeats itself, Netanyahu could drag out talks indefinitely. Once negotiating, there is ample opportunity to create diversions, distractions and provocations, with escalating tensions on the border with Gaza, by assassinating a top Hamas operative in Dubai, being a recent favorite.

The truth, inconvenient or otherwise, is that the absence of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state devastates American interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict is only one of Washington’s woes in the Muslim world. There is also the imbroglio in Pakistan/Afghanistan and the self-inflicted wound in Iraq, where President Bush tried to establish a satellite state of the kind maintained in Central Europe by the USSR. But it is without doubt that the question of Palestine stirs the deepest feelings among Muslims, and as long as the international community fails to come up with a solution that is seen by all sides to be equitable, the wound of Palestine will continue to be a plague on relations between the West and the Muslim world.

The immediate future will largely depend on the Obama administration's approach. The U.S. will need to elaborate and flesh out its "based on the 1967 lines" parameter and initiate back-to-back talks with the respective parties — this approach may actually be more productive than bilateral talks between two parties who have proven that they cannot resolve this conflict on their own.

Over time, one imagines that those key issues that have been addressed only tentatively thus far, or that have even remained taboo, will also be taken on. Syria, for instance, will at the appropriate moment need to shift from the orbit of hesitantly engaged outlier, to being a centerpiece in a comprehensive peace effort. A way will also need to be found to deal with the Hamas. Ultimately, that might mean an indirect engagement via a consortium of regional and other actors (such as the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and others, including but not exclusively Egypt) or by actively encouraging and accepting internal Palestinian political reconciliation.

What is fascinating is that even hardened foes from both sides of the divide see in President Obama a potential positive game-changer. Given the realities today, it is not reasonable to expect the parties to generate a solution of their own volition. Israelis and Palestinians both have dysfunctional politics, and suffer too great an asymmetry in power to be able to successfully conclude bilateral negotiations. American leadership has become the essential ingredient to delivering a way out of this conflict.

Acknowledging the role Obama's leadership will need to play is a recognition not only of the two sides' inability to end this on their own. It also recognizes that unlike in almost any other conflict, the U.S. in a way supports and has significant leverage over both sides of this divide, especially Israel. And President Obama individually has the commensurate moral weight to complement America's sole superpower status.

But is President Obama prepared to exert such pressure? And even if he is, will Congress allow him to do so? And what kind of spoiling role will be played by Netanyahu and his sidekick Avigdor Lieberman? The next 12 months will be instructive in this respect.

Jamal Bittar is professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at The University of Toledo in Ohio.

By Jamal Bittar

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