Interview with Mideast Expert David Pollock 'Netanyahu Could be Useful to Obama'

Obama's team would prefer to see Zipi Livni become the new Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu's hardline views on Iran, however, could actually help the new US administration, Middle East expert David Pollock tells SPIEGEL ONLINE.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Who will be the next prime minister in Israel?

David Pollock: It looks like Benjamin Netanyahu will have the edge, even though it is not a sure thing. I think the right wing clearly has an advantage in putting a coalition together. It is very clear, however, that Netanyahu does not want to rely on a a narrow, completely right-wing majority even though that would be possible arithmetically. We will rather see a mixed government, a centre-right administration.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In terms of the peace process, does it actually matter? Or is any new government so weakened that no new initiative can be expected anytime soon?

Pollock: Every new Israeli government will be officially committed to the peace process and a two-state solution -- but won't be able to do much about it any time soon.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So, hopes rest on the new Obama administration.

Pollock: There will be a steady push from the US government, and rightly so. The key word is "steady," not "major." You don't want a big Obama speech or conference which will not solve anything -- what you want is to work hard and patiently on the practical issues. The signs are that the Obama team is going to do exactly that. They have already announced that special envoy George Mitchell will go back late this month. That shows he wants to keep that effort going steadily.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: It is an open secret, however, that the White House would have preferred to work with Zipi Livni. They fear hardliner Netanyahu will make any peace negotiations much harder.

Pollock: Not necessarily. It is true Livni might have been more accommodating on some negotiation topics than Netanyahu. For example, she appears to support settlement stops that Netanyahu rejects. But if you look closer, the differences are not so stark -- it is very unlikely that Livni could achieve a settlement freeze either.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But words matter: Would it be helpful for new peace talks to have a Prime Minister Netanyahu who talks constantly about toppling Hamas?

Pollock: Once Netanyahu is in power, he will be more pragmatic than during the campaign. He also certainly would not want to alienate an Obama administration that pushes for peace. When it comes to Hamas, however, I don't necessarily see potential for a rift with Washington. There are a few people who think Obama's team should reach out to Hamas. But they don't reflect what American policy is or is going to be. Don't forget: The Hamas activities are responsible for the turn to the right in Israel and are preventing an Arab initiative for a two-state solution. The American government currently has made a pretty firm decision not to reach out to Hamas unless the organization makes major concessions.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: On Iran the differences are stark, though. Netanyahu calls Tehran an existential threat and speaks openly about military strikes against its nuclear program. Obama has just hinted at a new diplomatic outreach to Iran.

Pollock: I don't think that even a Netanyahu government has objections to American talks with Tehran. They will look obviously at the conditions but they are not fully opposed. Even though they are with some reason nervous about such an initiative, they see that it is worth a try. If it turns out that we have this opening and then we have Iran declare it will go ahead and finish the nuclear program, then we might have a different problem. But paradoxically enough, Netanyahu's especially strong position on Iran might be rather useful for new American diplomacy with Iran.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How?

Pollock: There is that threat hanging out there. For all the bluster in Tehran, they have to be concerned about possible military strikes of Israelis against their nuclear program. Not taking the option of an Israeli military intervention off the table could serve a purpose for Obama.

The interview was conducted by Gregor Peter Schmitz
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