The Obama-Netanyahu affair: to what extent are US-Israeli relations on the rocks?

Published March 4th, 2014 - 03:38 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

A lot has changed since Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu met U.S. President Obama in March last year.

In twelve months, the U.S. has sealed a deal with Israel’s arch-foe Iran on its controversial nuclear program, while Israel has ramped up its settlement construction drive and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made several pushes to disprove cynics on the U.S.-brokered Middle East peace deal.

Now, Obama has entered the peace effort following his meeting with Netanyahu on Monday. The president urged Netanyahu to make tough decisions in order to make peace with the Palestinians.

But turning the table on the Palestinians, the prime minister insisted Israel had done its part for peace, while the Palestinians had not.

Analysts say much of Obama’s apparent frustration at Netanyahu appears to lie behind the possibility of Middle East peace negotiations taking a nose dive, negotiations which the U.S. has brokered and championed as an apt way forward.

“Obama is surely aggravated by Netanyahu,” Joel Beinin, a U.S.-based professor of Middle East history, told Al Arabiya News on Monday.

“He may even believe, behind closed doors, that Netanyahu and his government have been the primary obstacle to the successful conclusion of Secretary Kerry's mission,” Beinin added.

The meeting corresponded with the release of Israeli government statistics on new settlement building in the occupied West Bank, which showed it had increased by 123.7 percent last year.

The data also showed that work began on 2,534 settlement housing units in 2013 compared with 1,133 the year before.

Prior to the meeting, Obama spoke about Netanyahu’s part in the peace deal, signaling what some critics labeled a “veiled threat” to the Israeli premier. He pinpointed settlement construction as a main sticking point in the negotiations.

“If you see no peace deal and continued aggressive settlement construction -- and we have seen more aggressive settlement construction over the last couple years than we’ve seen in a very long time,” Obama told Bloomberg View’s Jeffrey Goldberg last Thursday.

“If Palestinians come to believe that the possibility of a contiguous sovereign Palestinian state is no longer within reach, then our ability to manage the international fallout is going to be limited.”

But will Obama’s irritation over the settlements nudge Netanyahu in another direction?

“As Netanyahu is a firm proponent of Israel’s position of settlement building, it is unlikely that he will cease simply because of President Obama’s position on the matter,” Justin Dargin, a geopolitical expert at Oxford University, told Al Arabiya News on Tuesday.

“Netanyahu is much more likely to yield to internal Israeli sentiment on the issue as Obama will not significantly modify the longstanding American relationship with Israel.”

And do Obama’s remarks signify a turning tide in the administration’s attitudes towards Israel, when compared to the president’s predecessor, George W. Bush?

“President Obama’s position marks a strong departure from that of former President Bush’s position of comprehensive support, even if it may not have been amenable to the overall Arab and Palestinian position. In that way, President Obama’s meeting with Netanyahu was a departure from the past several administrations of placing a certain amount of diplomatic pressure on Israel to fine tune its position,” Dargin added.

During the meeting, Netanyahu was keen to outline a common threat both countries face from Iran. He referred to the prospect of the Islamic Republic obtaining  military nuclear capacity as the “greatest challenge” for the United States and Israel.

But how much of a threat does Iran now pose?

On Monday, the U.N. nuclear agency said Iran was sticking to the agreed nuclear freeze in a report that came out a month after enforcing the deal. It added that uranium enrichment to medium levels “is no longer taking place.”

Analysts predict Israel becoming more angered if Iran “continues to live up to its part of the bargain in the ongoing uranium enrichment negotiations,” noted Dargin.

And if this happens “we can see Israel becoming much more upset at what it perceives as being America's inimical diplomatic position in regards to its security,” Dargin added.

Netanyahu is due to address the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group, on Tuesday, at a time when the admiration has been upset with the lobby for “trying to subvert American-led nuclear negotiations with Iran,” noted Goldberg.

Following this rift, the AIPAC conference is now looking to the Israeli prime minister as its “consoler and cheerleader,” wrote Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev.

Has AIPAC been hit by a crisis of confidence?

“AIPAC, understandably, cannot discern in which direction the wind is blowing in Jerusalem concerning Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians,” noted Shalev, “but it also failed to read the map in Washington when it decided last year, much to the chagrin of its Republican allies, to support a military attack in Syria which Congress opposed and the Administration soon abandoned.

“And all of these pitfalls and setbacks are dwarfed by what currently seems to be the epic failure in the battle against the interim nuclear agreement with Iran and the now-stalled additional sanctions bill,” Shalev added.

The lobby has become “significantly weaker after major policy losses over Syria and Iran,” noted Beinin and Obama cannot help but weigh up AIPAC’s impact on Congress.

“President Obama will be thinking about the impact of the Israel lobby on the mid-term congressional elections and on the Democratic Party beyond that. And he will be thinking about the long term strategic value of the U.S.-Israel relationship,” added Beinin.

Of course, the U.S.-Israel relationship is not solely based on the influence of AIPAC, but if AIPAC continues to do the “bidding” of Netanyahu's government, two things may happen,” explained Beinin.

“One, Netanyahu's government may fall over unnecessarily antagonizing the U.S.; two, even more young, liberal Jews will distance themselves from Israel.”

 By Eman El Shenawi

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