George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
November 12, 2009 - 1:00am

Like most of his predecessors, US President Barack Obama has failed to come up with a logical approach to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, now in its 62nd year.

Many optimists on both sides of the great divide had believed that he would this month take his first, tough step towards bringing the two sides to agree on the outlines of a settlement.

The American president had an opportunity to do that when he was scheduled to address on Tuesday an annual general assembly of 50 American Jewish groups. But apparently he was not prepared to do that, and he must have been relieved that he could skip that much-awaited opportunity by participating in a memorial service for 12 American soldiers and a civilian massacred at a Texas army post by an American-born Muslim army psychiatrist of Arab origin.

It was glaringly obvious that Obama was not yet willing to plunge into the anticipated confrontation with Israel and the influential American Jewish community, which reportedly contributes 40 per cent of the budget of the president's political party.

Surprisingly, he did not discuss the Middle East with the spokesmen of these Jewish groups, whom he invited to the White House. This was the second meeting the president has had with American Jewish leaders since assuming office earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was left wondering — or sweating, as one Israeli paper reported — until the last moment, when he heard that he was invited to the White House to participate in the Jewish conference in Washington.

Here again, a bland statement was issued by the White House about the 100-minute closed meeting, attended by Obama, Netanyahu and their top aides.

The statement said only that Obama "reaffirmed [the US'] strong commitment to Israel's security, and discussed security cooperation on a range of issues". However, a BBC reporter had this observation: "There were no photos, no press calls and none of the public warmth Israeli leaders usually get from US presidents".

Obviously, Netanyahu had a different take on the encounter, saying the session was "very important". A previously scheduled press briefing was abruptly cancelled before the Israeli prime minister took off for Paris, to attend a meeting with critical French leaders.

France and Great Britain are on record as opponents of continued Israeli colony construction in the Occupied Territories.

Strained relations

US-Israeli ties have been strained lately because of Netanyahu's refusal to freeze colony expansion. This point was reiterated by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who attended the United Jewish Communities/Jewish Federation of North America conference in Obama's place.

"No one should allow the issue of [colonies] to distract from the goal of a lasting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world", he said, without pointing a finger at any party.

But all this should not give the impression that US-Israeli relations are irretrievably damaged. For example, the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz reported that, "The largest defence deal in Israeli history, for the purchase of the F-35 stealth fighter aircraft is advancing slowly but surely".

A deal is expected early next year and the United States is scheduled to respond next week to Israel's desire to buy 25 of those jets, "representing the cutting edge of US technology".

With the situation on the Palestinian side also on a slippery slope now that Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has announced his intention not to run in January's election, saying also that he may quit his two other positions within the Palestinian liberation movement, the peace process is in danger of total collapse.

This leaves Obama with two options: Either close the door on the peace talks and await a better time, or exercise his power by bringing Israel to heel. He could do this by suspending financial and military assistance.

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department officer who participated for many years in the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and who feels that Arab-Israeli peace "is critically important to US national interests" says Obama should ask himself one question: "Am I prepared to be tough and reassuring, cracking heads when required — and it will be required — and to take heat from Israel, the Arabs, and the pro-Israeli community in the United States?"

Since the chances right now of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement on the big issues are "slim to none", the American president must realise that "your next foray into the wonderful world of Arab-Israeli diplomacy may prove to be even more feckless and embarrassing than the last", Miller continues.

If Obama's answer is in the affirmative, Miller advises him to "go for it". "If the answer is no, then don't bother".

My gut feeling is that the US president will opt for the former, just as soon as he wins one of the several big domestic battles he has waged in the last nine months.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017