Elias Harfoush
Dar Al-Hayat (Opinion)
November 19, 2009 - 1:00am

The public statement concerning the results of talks that took place during the meeting at the White House last Monday, described as “secret,” between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu, came in the form of an Israeli announcement of the building of 900 new housing units for Jewish settlers in Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem. This stance represents the biggest challenge for the Obama administration up to this point.

No one doubts that the dispute between the two men over the issue of settlements was a key point of discussion in this meeting. However, the recent announcement by the Israeli government confirmed that this dispute was not settled in favor of the US position. It also confirms the consensus view in most American political and media commentator circles, as well as in Arab circles, namely that Barack Obama’s maneuvering with the rightwing government in Israel has become weak and the level of credibility he gained among Arabs and Muslims following his election has begun to dissipate, if it has not been completely lost. This is exactly what the Israelis are striving for: showing the American president, who arrived on a wave of popular enthusiasm, that there are limits to his ability to pressure them. This is especially the case when it comes to what they consider a foundation of their national security, by considering Jerusalem their “united capital” and that they can build there wherever they please.

In the face of this, the US president could only remind us of previous positions. The Israelis have heard these stances many times from Washington and elsewhere, and have come to pay them no attention: such as, new settlements do not provide Israel with more security, and make peace much more difficult to achieve. Even though we know that Israel’s view of its security and conditions for peace are radically different than those of most countries in the world, not to mention the Palestinians and the Arabs. However, the question arises constantly amid this dispute: what is the path to imposing this view upon the Israelis, to make them more receptive to peace? If the US cannot play this role, then who will be able to? Is it President Obama, who could not find anything to say (in an interview with Fox News) to criticize the Israeli decision? “I’ve said repeatedly and I’ll say again, Israel’s security is a vital national interest to the United States,” he remarked. What if Netanyahu responded by saying that new settlement at Gilo is vital to “Israel’s security”?

This is one of the few times in the history of US-Israeli relations that we can remember Israel venturing to openly challenge the US, the country that funds the Israeli treasury with $3 billion a year, not to speak of the unlimited military support. The danger in this challenge to American interests is that it destroys the foundation that Obama set down for his strategy of new relations with the crises of the region, which are based on removing the volatile Palestinian fuse from America’s problems with the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Israeli challenge is not the only precedent that we should remember. A similar confrontation took place between President George W Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. However, at the time, the Bush administration was able to force Shamir to take part in the Madrid Conference, by threatening to halt loan guarantees for building settlements.

Can Obama, or does he dare, do such a thing?


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