Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The new face of US-Israel policy

In the article below, Richard Silverstein is hopelessly too optimistic about the US administration's policy shift vis-à-vis the Israel - Palestine conflict. But the article is useful in reminding us of a number of fairly minor (at least in my opinion) tell tale signs of the slightly changing wind. We're all reading tealeaves for now and Silverstein's reading is as good a guess as any body's.

Guardian's CiF

Last week, Barack Obama said in addressing a joint session of Congress that his administration had done more to reform healthcare in the last 30 days than administrations had done in the previous 10 years. This also holds true for US policy toward Israel.

New appointees and policy augur a sea change in US policy. Last week, Obama announced a $900m commitment to rebuild Gaza after the devastation wrought by Israel in the recent war. Though the aid will not be entrusted directly to Hamas, the US would not commit anything if it had ruled out the Islamic movement as a potential legitimate future interlocutor.

Our government understands that reconstruction cannot happen without a lifting of the Israeli siege. This is why, with uncharacteristic sharpness, Hillary Clinton recently criticised the ongoing border closures and why she plans to make the issue a central part of her discussions in Israel this week. Clearly she is putting Israel on notice that the next four years will not be business as usual.

The pro-Israel lobby is none too happy. Publisher Mort Zuckerman and local New York political leader (and former Jewish Defence League activist) Dov Hikind are feeling betrayed and wonder who the real Hillary is: the gung-ho New York senator who never met an Israeli Wall she didn't like, or the secretary of state who chides Israel for impeding progress in the peace process. I'd feel a little sorry for them if I wasn't so pleased with the spunky "new" Hillary.

She began her first trip to the Middle East in her new role on Sunday, attending the donor conference for Gaza recovery in Sharm el Sheikh. From there she travels to Israel, where the Israeli government will have an opportunity to size up the new Hillary and vice-versa. Though she will not be meeting with any Hamas representatives on this trip, it would seem only a matter of time before this taboo is broken.

I can't help but wonder what Clinton's attitude will be toward recent Egyptian-brokered talks to reconcile Hamas and Fatah and establish a renewed unity government. Even if our government tacitly supported such a development, it would be a good thing. Marc Lynch, in Foreign Policy, argues that the Palestinian reconciliation talks are a direct result of the hopefulness that Arabs feel regarding the new Obama administration. He claims it augurs well not just for relations with the Palestinians, but in other Middle East hotspots as well like Iran and Iraq.

Lynch notes that these talks are a beginning rather than an end, and that they will not go easily due to the pent-up frustrations and anger on both sides of the Fatah-Hamas divide. In fact, Haaretz notes that Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that any Hamas representative serving in a national unity government must accept a two-state solution. Clinton joined this chorus in a statement made just before she left for Egypt. This entire issue had been finessed in the previous national unity government with Hamas agreeing to allow the PLO under Abbas to conduct negotiations with Israel. Thus Abbas's raising the issue now seems designed to throw a wrench in the works. Needless to say, Hamas has rejected this demand. As Lynch wrote, this won't be easy.

Returning to the subject of the Obama administration, Dennis Blair, the new US intelligence chief, vetted Chas Freeman, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and critic of the occupation, to become chair of the National Intelligence Council. This is the group charged with preparing national intelligence estimates for nations that pose a danger to US interests. Knowing Freeman's critical views of Israeli policy, one wonders how long it will be before Israeli extremists and extremist groups will be getting the same level of attention from our intelligence analysts that Hamas does.

This of course has raised the hackles of the pro-Israel lobby. Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, called Freeman a "truly vile creature". The rest of the lobby went into overdrive attempting to find anything in Freeman's past with which to impeach him. The best they could dredge up was an allegedly anti-Israel Arab studies textbook that the Middle East Policy Council (which the former diplomat chaired) distributed to US public schools. It stated that Jerusalem's Old City was largely populated by Arabs and that the influence of the American Zionist lobby on Harry Truman's recognition of Israel was a subject "worth studying".

In order to head off the brewing controversy, Blair formally named Freeman to his new post, thus depriving the pro-Israel forces of yet another stone to use in their sling-shot against Obama's developing "honest broker" approach toward Israel.

Even those appointed to lesser positions than expected are significant. The lobby was angling for Dennis Ross, affiliated with the Aipac-oriented WINEP thinktank, to be designated as Israeli-Arab peace envoy. Instead, George Mitchell got the post. The latter is deemed much more of an honest broker and someone who will carry water for neither party, which cannot be said for Ross. Instead, the latter was appointed to be Clinton's special representative dealing with Iran-US relations. Laura Rozen at Foreign Policy raises serious questions about just what it is Ross will be doing at the state department and whether anyone there has a clear idea. While Iran was not happy with this appointment, at least it takes him out of the Israeli-Arab sphere.

Further evidence of Obama's new willingness to challenge Israel is Akiva Eldar's Haaretz report that the US government is considering making Avigdor Lieberman persona non grata due to his membership in the Kahane Chai party when he first arrived in Israel from his native Moldova. That would mean that Lieberman could not assume any ministerial post in the new Israeli government that would involve travel to the US for negotiations or consultations. There is a muscularity and directness in Obama's approach to Israel we haven't seen in ages.

Those of us who have been praying for this change in US policy for years shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking there won't be a backlash at some point in the next four years. After all, Obama has not yet done anything substantive that the lobby would deem harmful to Israel's interests. But that time will come if the new president is in earnest about bringing a real peace between Israel and the Arabs (and I believe he does). Those who want a balanced US policy must be on their guard for more damaging attacks in the future.


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