The stalled Middle East peace process will not be the major item on the agenda during United States President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel next month (March), many observers believe.
While the mass circulation free newspaper Yisra’el Hayom claimed it had been told by “officials close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu” that the peace process will be the focus of the visit and that “an announcement on renewed talks with the Palestinians will be made either just before or during the visit”, this was contradicted by Netanyahu himself, who listed Iran’s nuclear weapons and the civil war in Syria as the most important subjects to be discussed.
Other officials pointed to Obama’s recent State of the Union address which was heavy on domestic issues and bringing the troops home from Afghanistan, while the Middle East was dismissed in a paragraph.
Clearly Obama sees the major tasks for his second term as the completion of the economic rebuilding process following the Global Financial Crisis and a repositioning of the United States to retain world leadership in the face of the rise of China. He wants no more of the foreign involvements and distractions that plagued the administration of his predecessor, George W Bush and his own first term.
That is why his major priorities will be to cajole Netanyahu into moderating his hard-line stance on the Iranian nuclear program, while warning that Israel should steer clear of involvement in the Syrian quagmire. Israel’s air strike inside Syria, variously reported as hitting a weapons convoy and a military installation, has alarmed the White House which continues to believe it can eventually persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to go quietly.
Similarly with Iran, the Obama Administration is placing renewed emphasis on a diplomatic solution after what it sees as a more moderate stance by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In a speech to mark the anniversary of the country’s Islamic revolution Ahmadinejad praised US Vice President Joe Biden for taking a “better tone” towards Iran.
However, it is doubtful if much credence can be placed on the words of the mercurial political leader of the Islamic Republic, who in the same address expressed a desire to be Iran’s first astronaut. In any case he remains subject to the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Obama will nevertheless ask Netanyahu to get behind diplomatic initiatives. Specifically talks in Kazakhstan later this month (26th) involving the five major nuclear powers – the US, Russia, Britain, France and China – plus Germany, sitting down with Iran when, in the words of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, “an updated and credible offer” will be made to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium to weapons grade.
Netanyahu, still distracted by the seemingly endless task of putting together a workable coalition in the wake of last month’s general election, will probably not want a battle with Obama and may be ready to make concessions on Iran and Syria. Whether this will extend to re-opening talks with the Palestinians is another matter. Some minor extensions to the land on the West Bank actually under the control of the Palestinian Authority and the release of a few political prisoners are probably all that can be reasonably hoped for.
Added to the difficulties faced by an Obama visit is that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) is under challenge.
The PLO is recognised by both Israel and the US as the legitimate negotiating partner on behalf of Palestinians everywhere, but since he was elected to succeed the late Yasser Arafat in 2004 Abbas has not offered himself for re-election and his legitimacy is now being seriously questioned.
Washington initiatives advocating at least a partial freeze on the construction of Israeli settlements on the West Bank are a dead duck. Since regaining office in 2009, Netanyahu has routinely sanctioned new settlements and extensions to existing ones regardless of protests by US and European leaders. Even if a partial freeze were on the table it would be rejected by Palestinians who want nothing less than a total halt and a timetable for rollbacks.
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.