Thursday, May 21, 2009

Obama and Israel

Palestinian statehood is a just objective, but Israel's security concerns are urgent

“Yes, we can” is not a message that translates well into Middle East diplomacy. President Obama met Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, in Washington this week for the leaders' first direct talks since they took office. Mr Obama urged a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr Netanyahu responded that Israel was ready to resume peace talks immediately, but he pointedly refrained from referring to Palestinian statehood. He stressed that peace depended on the Palestinians' accepting Israel's permanent legitimacy.

The language is diplomatic and Mr Obama has been at pains to emphasise his sympathies with Israel. As a presidential candidate Mr Obama declared that Israel's security was sacrosanct and non-negotiable. There is implicitly but unmistakably a difference in approach between his Administration and the new Israeli Government, though. Mr Obama believes that progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace will increase pressure on Iran to curtail its nuclear programme. Mr Netanyahu argues that peace efforts must be advanced in concert with pressure on Tehran.

Against this background, American conservatives have suggested that US-Israeli relations are in danger of deteriorating to their worst state for 50 years. That is an alarmist and unfair aspersion on Mr Obama's credentials as a friend of Israel. These are clear not only from Mr Obama's campaign rhetoric but also from his foreign policy signals since taking office. He understands the hostile climate of Middle Eastern diplomacy. He knows the importance of Israel to Western interests and democratic ideals. He simply considers that Israel's security will be enhanced by a halt to the expansion of settlements and the achievement of a two-state accommodation.

On these broad principles, Mr Obama is right. The eventual achievement of Palestinian statehood is a just cause. And to satisfy the minimal requirements of both sets of legitimate national claims, a two-state territorial settlement between Israel and the Palestinians will almost certainly need to approximate the pre-1967 armistice lines.

But while Mr Netanyahu's diplomacy appears unyielding, his concerns are not groundless and may obscure an unexpected pragmatism. As Prime Minister in the late 1990s, he signed the Wye River agreement to cede territory to the Palestinian Authority. His warnings about Iran's nuclear programme, which is plainly not designed purely for generating electricity, are far from being alarmist. When President Ahmadinejad gleefully anticipates the destruction of the Jewish state, Israeli leaders have every good reason - geographically and historically - to insist on the urgency of the issue.

The shape of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is plain and Mr Obama is right to seek it. But Western governments have a tendency to believe that a two-state settlement is within Israel's power to effect by fiat. In practice, two states are not a solution to the conflict so much as the highly desirable outcome of the end of the conflict. Getting there will require greater trust than now exists between the protagonists, and between the new US Administration and Israeli Government. Mr Netanyahu should be pressed on Palestinian statehood. But Israel has not only, in the customary demeaning phrase, a right to exist: it has a right to expect support against bellicose threats.
Comments by readers:There is a Palestinian State. It is called Jordan which has a 69% Palestinian Arab population. Jordan was created by Britain in return for favours given by the Hashemites of Saudi Arabia on land annexed from the mandated territory designated by the League of Nations in 1929 for the Jewish homeland.

charley george, London, England

Israel has shown its willingness to resolve the issues - the offer rejected by Yasser Arafat went far beyond what could reasonably have been expected. The onus is on the Palestinians to accept Israel's continued existence and show the capacity to reach and maintain an agreement.

Faustino, Brisbane (ex-pat), Australia

A "two state solution" is a fiction. Who would run this Palestinian terror state? Why, Iran of course, through Hamas who will quickly usurp the dwindling remnants of "Presidentt" Abbas' authority.

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