Obama, Israel on collision course over Iran

By MARTIN SIEFF  |  May 5, 2009 at 11:48 AM
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WASHINGTON, May 5 (UPI) -- U.S. President Barack Obama met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Tuesday, the day after Peres spoke to the annual policy conference of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

The meeting was closed, but the Palestinians and Iran can be expected to be the key agenda items, especially as the Obama administration and new Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are on a collision course on both of these key Middle East issues.

Peres is on different sides of these two controversies. Some 16 years ago, he was the driving force on the Israeli side to launch the Oslo peace process, and he has remained a passionate advocate of seeking peace with the Palestinians and making major concessions to them ever since. On this he has always been at odds with Netanyahu, who defeated him in the 1996 Israeli general election.

But on Iran, Peres these days sounds as hawkish as Netanyahu or Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He is part of the overwhelming popular and political consensus in Israel that takes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated threats to annihilate the Jewish state very seriously.

Publicly at least, Peres is trying hard to present U.S.-Israeli relations as still warm and close: "Let me make it clear, we trust the leadership of President Obama," he said in his speech to AIPAC.

However, there have been signs the Obama White House is taking a tougher stance on Israel than previous administrations.

According to a report Tuesday in the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz, U.S. national security adviser Gen. James Jones, the former commandant of the U.S. Marines Corps, sent a message to a European foreign minister that read, "The new administration will convince Israel to compromise on the Palestinian question. We will not push Israel under the wheels of a bus, but we will be more forceful toward Israel than we have been under Bush."

Netanyahu told the AIPAC policy conference in a satellite message that he was prepared to resume peace negotiations "without any delay, without any preconditions."

"We want peace with the Arab world. We also want peace with the Palestinians," the Israeli prime minister said. But "the Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state."

However, Netanyahu did not mention the two-state solution that Obama is determined to achieve.

Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Washington to meet with Obama in the White House on May 17. Despite Peres' reassuring rhetoric, it looks to be an uncomfortable session for both leaders.

For Obama's policy on the Israel-Arab peace process is very different from that of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. Bush never took the peace process seriously and put no political capital into trying to revive it. The onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombers that killed more than 1,000 Israeli civilians in the second intifada from 2000 to 2005 saw to that.

Bush instead in practice gave full support to Israel to strike back against the Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat, and the Israelis killed around 5,000 Palestinians, including civilians, in their retaliation operations. The last major Israeli incursion into Palestinian-controlled territory was ordered by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the beginning of this year. The incursion into Gaza, against Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, was in retaliation for its escalating rocket attacks on Israeli towns and settlements. In that conflict, 1,200 Palestinians died. Bush again gave the Israelis a free hand.

An upcoming U.N. report strongly criticizes Israel over its Gaza operations, saying the Israel Defense Forces targeted U.N. sites during them. The report is not yet released but is being commented upon in the Israeli press.

It was striking that Olmert ended the Gaza operation and pulled the Israeli army back only a couple of days before Obama was inaugurated. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and national security adviser Jones have made clear they see reviving the peace process, restraining Israel from more military operations against the Palestinians and getting a two-state solution as among their most important goals in U.S. foreign policy.

Netanyahu and his hard-line foreign minister, Lieberman, could not disagree more. They believe Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who has been sounding increasingly radical and anti-Israel himself in recent weeks, is both an unreliable partner and far too weak to guarantee any peace agreement, even if he was willing to sign it. Hamas still has an iron grip on Gaza, and its power has been growing at Abbas' expense on the West Bank, too. Hamas is expected to sweep the West Bank municipal elections later this year.

On Iran, the substance of Obama's policy is in many respects similar to that of Bush. Like Bush and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, Obama and Clinton are strongly opposed to using the U.S. Air Force to try to knock out Iran's nuclear-enrichment program with its huge complex of thousands of gas centrifuges. And like Bush, they also want to restrain Israel from launching its own pre-emptive airstrikes against those targets.

But Israeli leaders trusted Bush as a proven and loyal friend, and they were willing to listen to him on Iran. Also, Olmert was a dovish and cautious centrist who never recovered in popular standing from the way he bungled Israel's July 2006 mini-war against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Olmert, therefore, was only too happy to remain passive and cautious and obey Bush and Rice's warnings while handing over the Iran problem to his successor.

Netanyahu, however, said repeatedly that the Iran nuclear threat could destroy the state of Israel in a second Holocaust and that removing it is his top priority. The new Israeli leader has also said he would prefer the threat to be removed by diplomacy and without the risk of war. Obama's challenge, therefore, will be to persuade Netanyahu that he is capable of doing this.

But the Americans also have high stakes on the table if Israel attacks Iran. First, Iranian retaliation could cut oil-tanker commerce in and out of the Persian Gulf and force the U.S. Navy into extremely dangerous and risky operations to try to keep the seaway open.

Second, such a conflict could drive oil prices sky-high again, destroying Obama's hopes for U.S. and global economic recovery based on his enormous $3.6 trillion budget and $787 billion emergency stimulus package.

Obama and Netanyahu, therefore, appear on a collision course that could put U.S.-Israeli relations under worse strain than they have been in generations.

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