No longer master of the Middle East

Netanyahu’s public swipe at Obama’s Cairo speech reveals that Washington even has trouble influencing Israel today.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Following Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s speech at the Bar-Ilan university’s Begin-Sadat centre on Sunday, the good news for the Palestinians is that the Israeli leader believes they have a right to their own flag and national anthem. The bad news is that Israelis will refuse to allow a future Palestinian state – or ‘entity’, as Netanyahu prefers to call it – to have control over its own airspace or borders. Also, there is likely to be a growth in Jewish settlements, Netanyahu promised.

He also set a precondition for resumed peace talks: that the Palestinians must first recognise ‘in a clear and public manner’ that Israel is the state of the Jewish people, with Jerusalem its undivided capital. He also expects Palestinians to give up any hopes of securing a right to return for Palestinian refugees to their former homes inside Israel’s current borders.

Netanyahu said he was willing to meet with Arab leaders at ‘any time, any place’, but, unsurprisingly, given the content of his speech, there has been no rush across the Middle East to meet up with him. Instead, Palestinian Authority officials and leaders from across the Arab world accused Netanyahu of setting obstacles in the path of peace.

Netanyahu’s speech tells us a lot about the shifting balance of power in the Middle East, where, most strikingly, American influence over Israel is not what it once was. His speech was in part a response to US president Barack Obama’s praised address to the Muslim world in Cairo earlier this month. There, Obama said that America’s bond with Israel is ‘unbreakable’. But he also reiterated the demand, which he had already put to Netanyahu publicly during an Oval Office meeting, that Israel put a halt to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Following his Cairo speech, the US president is widely seen as reaching out a silk glove-clad hand to the Muslim world while putting Netanyahu in his place, demanding that the Israeli leader support Palestinian statehood, cease work on new settlements in occupied territories and dismantle existing ones. Yet Netanyahu’s retort made clear that America’s authority in the Middle East, certainly over Israeli actions, is diminishing.

Yes, Obama has pushed Netanyahu to accept the creation of a country for the Palestinians, even though Netanyahu has opposed Palestinian nationhood for decades. But the conditions the Israeli prime minister set out are so restrictive that a future Palestinian ‘entity’, as he envisions it, would have severely limited sovereignty. It is evident that the terms Netanyahu has set for the resumption of peace talks are unacceptable to the Palestinians. Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak’s offer at the 2000 Middle East Peace Summit at Camp David looks positively generous by comparison.

On the issue of settlements, Netanyahu ended up defending them. He didn’t make a strong, outright case for more settlements – arguing that ‘I do not wish to build new settlements or to confiscate lands to that end’ – but he did say: ‘We have to allow the residents of the settlements to live normal lives.’ He said Israel would need to allow for the settlements’ ‘natural growth’.

A lot of hope has been pinned on Obama taming the Israeli ‘hawks’, but the power dynamic has clearly changed. While Obama insists that the US-Israel bond is ‘unbreakable’, it has undoubtedly transformed since the Cold War days. Back then Washington sought out reliable strategic partners to enforce Western interests throughout the developing world and the Middle East, as it was nervous of the Soviet Union turning growing anti-imperialist sentiment to its advantage. The US was always the dominant partner in this marriage of convenience with Israel, despite popular conspiracy theories about an ‘Israel lobby’ puppeteering US Middle East policy.

Over the past couple of decades, America has taken a more critical stance towards its former ally and has been the driving force behind the creation of a Palestinian state. The two-state solution, with its ‘land for peace’ agreements, represents an abandonment of the Zionist goal of creating a ‘greater Israel’.

In more recent times, America has lost its command over the Middle East conflict. This became apparent during the Second Lebanon War in July 2006. With America’s international authority severely discredited by the Bush administration’s disastrous ‘war on terror’, the US was losing its grip on global affairs and was unable to dictate to Israel how to conduct its own fight against terrorism. The Bush administration’s ambivalence towards Israel’s assaults in Lebanon – which ran contrary to America’s interest in improving its relations with Arab regimes – was illustrated by then US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s simultaneous refusal to demand Israel desist from attacking Lebanon and her insistence that it conduct its bombing in a ‘proportionate’ and humanitarian fashion. During the war, Rice visited Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to express America’s ‘great concerns about the suffering of innocent peoples throughout the region’.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s limited influence and Obama’s current inability to force Netanyahu to get behind his apparent vision of a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, during the Suez crisis of 1956, then US president Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles had the authority to demand that Israel, Britain and France abandon their military attacks on Nasser’s Egypt. Today, Obama finds it difficult to push Israel in a particular direction, and openly expresses his concern about being seen to ‘meddle’ in Iran, revealing a weakened Washington that has far less ability to direct affairs in the Middle East.

As Netanyahu’s speech and the Palestinians’ reactions to it have shown, Obama’s intervention to help achieve peace through a two-state solution has helped further to pit the two sides against each other, rather than reconcile them. Despite being criticised by the Israeli ultra-right nationalist camp for agreeing to cooperate in a US-brokered two-state solution, Netanyahu has clearly put a cog in the wheel of Obama’s plans. In response, Palestinian officials, emboldened by Obama’s Cairo speech, rejected Netanyahu as a genuine partner for peace.

As always, outside intervention encourages both sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict to react to, play along with or reject the demands set by the third party, diminishing chances of the two parties whose futures are at stake to resolve their own conflicts without having to kowtow to outsiders’ interests. This can only serve to divide and disempower the people of Israel and Palestine.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild examined Israel and the new politics of insecurity. She also looked at the death of the ‘Zionist dream’ and said Waltz with Bashir revealed Israelis’ post-Zionist stress disorder. Mick Hume reported back from a visit to Israel. He also said Israel is not what it was and pointed out that Western ‘culture wars’ have been exported to the Middle East. Or read more at spiked issue Middle East.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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