George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
January 14, 2010 - 1:00am

Barack Obama does not want to resort to using the stick, although this approach has been effective in the past, especially in settling Arab-Israeli disputes. This was pointed out by his special Middle East envoy, George J. Mitchell, when he recalled that recent US presidents have done so with notable success.

Obama may yet be forced to change his mind. One reason for this is the arrogance of the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who declared on Tuesday that Israel would never cede control of Occupied Jerusalem nor retreat to the 1967 armistice lines.

For the record, Israel had pledged to do so under the Roadmap, a peace plan sponsored by the so-called Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the US and the United Nations.

Netanyahu was obviously reacting inelegantly to a remark made by Mitchell in an eye-opening television interview that must have touched a raw Israeli nerve and subsequently prompted an official US whitewash.

The envoy, in response to a question about likely US pressure on Israel, had recalled, intentionally or unwittingly, that "under American law, the US can withhold support on loan guarantees to Israel."


Israel's loudmouth ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, argued that Mitchell's vision of peace within two years was "unrealistic and might prove counterproductive."

His point: "We know from our experience that state-making takes a long time." It sure does if Israel has anything to do with it. Israel now occupies 78 per cent of Palestine, a large part of which was seized during the Six-Day War of 1967, and refuses to withdraw, despite numerous UN resolutions.

Yet, the Obama administration continues to maintain the US' special relationship with Israel. For example, the US is doubling its military stockpiles in Israel, to which Israeli Defence Forces have access "in the event of a military emergency."

The value of the stockpile is now estimated at $800 million (Dh2.9 billion), according to a report in Defense News, a US weekly. An American defence official explained that the US-Israel agreement "reflects the Obama administration's continued commitment to Israel's security and the understanding that changes in US economic conditions and inflation have limited the weapons available to Israel."

Total US military and economic aid to Israel, which started in the Kennedy administration, has to date amounted to about $154 billion (Dh566.4 billion). Furthermore, an exemption from Congress allows Israel to spend about 25 per cent of US military aid within its own industry, thus helping Israel become one of the largest arms exporters in the world.

The other side of the coin is not much easier for Obama since Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been adamant about refusing to negotiate with Israel unless the latter freezes all colony construction in Palestinian areas, including Occupied East Jerusalem — a demand initially supported by the Obama administration.

Proximity talks

The carrot that Obama is reportedly offering includes the holding of so-called "proximity talks," whereby Mitchell would meet with each side separately and then communicate their respective positions to the other.

Another suggestion he has made, which some Arab countries have surprisingly supported, is for Abbas to drop his objection and accept an anticipated Israeli counter offer to lift the siege against Gaza, a step that may allow the embattled Palestinian leader to save face. But whether Abbas will go along with this is uncertain, since Occupied East Jerusalem is a key issue for the Palestinians and the entire Muslim world.

Mitchell, now in Europe, and US National Security Advisor Jim Jones are heading to the Middle East shortly in a bid to coax the two sides into beginning peace negotiations. The US seems determined, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated when she met with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, that the Arabs and Israelis ought "to take steps needed to relaunch negotiations as soon as possible and without preconditions, which is in the interests of everyone in the region."

Her seemingly logical idea, a reflection of the thinking in the White House, is for the two sides to concentrate on the issue of borders because "resolving borders resolves [colonies], resolving [Occupied] Jerusalem resolves [colonies]."

But before one can do that the Obama administration ought to make sure, as Mitchell explained in his interview, that Israel takes "a series of [visible] steps and action that ... would encourage President Abbas to enter the discussions." This is where Obama may have to use his stick.

George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at


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