Reserved Relations with Israel Obama's New Middle East Diplomacy

The Obama Administration is hoping to revive the peace process in the Middle East. Part of the strategy is to distance Washington from Israel.
Von Gabor Steingart

The members of the leading pro-Israel lobby in the US were visibly moved as they listened to Vice President Joe Biden's speech last Tuesday. It was music to the ears of the 6,500 delegates of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who had gathered in the Washington Convention Center.

Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with US President Barack Obama on May 5.

Israeli President Shimon Peres meets with US President Barack Obama on May 5.

Foto: DPA

"With all the change you will hear about, there is one enduring, essential principle that will not change; and that is our commitment to the peace and security of the state of Israel," he told his audience.

The delegates not only applauded Biden, they cheered him as loud as they could.

Yet, in the America of President Barack Obama no one can be certain of avoiding change. That's something the AIPAC members would have realized as they watched the evening news a short time later. At almost exactly the same time that Biden was giving his speech another member of the Obama administration was making a memorable appearance before the United Nations in New York. Her name was Rose Gottemoeller.

She may not be a household name, but Gottemoeller is an important figure. The US assistant secretary of state is one of the world's foremost experts on nuclear weapons and is currently leading disarmament talks with Russia and working on strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In her address to the UN, Gottemoeller called on a number of presumed nuclear powers to join the NPT. "Universal adherence to the NPT itself, including by India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea … remains a fundamental objective of the United States," she said.

Something that sounded self-evident was in fact breaking a major taboo in US diplomacy. Washington had never before named Israel as a nuclear power. Every US administration has ignored, at least officially, Israel's nuclear arsenal, which it first produced in the late 1960s and has modernized and expanded ever since.

Breaking Taboos

An agreement between the governments of Richard Nixon and Golda Meir obliged the US and Jerusalem to stay silent on the Israeli nuclear program. Every US president since has agreed that this was the best way to protect Israeli security.

Israel refuses to this day to release any information on its nuclear weapons and in doing so has eluded any form of international inspections. The country has also avoided any non-proliferation talks. The logic is compelling: If something doesn't officially exist then it can't be counted, inspected or reduced.

It was inevitable then that Gottemoeller's comments would provoke a storm of indignation in Israel. Meanwhile many Washington think tanks have seen her demand as yet further proof of the administration's willingness to reform. Obama obviously does not shy away from breaking taboos when it comes to US foreign policy.

Even on this difficult terrain -- the Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the conflict between the West and the Islamic world -- Obama sees an opportunity for an historic breakthrough. It is significant that shortly after his inauguration he chose to signal this change of attitude by giving his first in-depth interview to the Arab network Al-Arabiya.

Obama makes repeated allusions to his own biography, which is not only rooted in the Christian world. "I have Muslims in my family. I have lived in a Muslim-majority country," is something he has said many times. His core message to the Muslim world, which he reiterated on his recent visit to Turkey, is that the US "is not at war with Islam."

However this policy of détente has led to an increase in tensions with Israel. From his first day in office Obama made it clear to the government in Jerusalem that he would not be continuing George W. Bush's overly friendly policy. The Republican president had always defended the Israelis -- whether it was the building of settlements or their retaliation against Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombings. The fact that the Syrians, Iranians, Palestinians and Lebanese also failed to search for a diplomatic solution to the crisis meant that the peace process came to a grinding halt.

Now Obama wants to revive it and he is doing so by keeping his distance from Israel. The outing of Israel as a nuclear power was just the pinnacle of a strategy that is aimed at giving America back its capability to act in the Middle East.

The White House had already made it clear that it would be making demands on the Israelis. The new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should make sure there is a complete halt to the building of settlements in the West Bank. During his recent visit to Turkey, Obama declared that the US "strongly supports the goal of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security."

Ever since, relations between the US and Israel have become decidedly frosty. Israeli Environment Minister Gilad Erdan even went so far as to say that "Israel does not take orders from Obama." The old friends have never seemed so far apart.

A '57-State Solution'

Obama does not want to be deterred from his current path. He plans to travel to Cairo on June 4 to give a speech addressed to the Muslim world. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said last Friday that the "the scope of the speech … is bigger than where the speech was going to be given."

On Monday the Times of London quoted Jordan's King Abdullah as saying that the US is planning to promote a peace plan for the Middle East that involves a "57-state solution" in which the entire Muslim world would recognize Israel. According to the newspaper, the king and President Obama had come up with the plan during his visit to Washington in April and details are likely to be thrashed out in the coming month, particularly when Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu travels to Washington to hold talks with Obama next Monday.

The Times said that Israel may be offered incentives to freeze the building of settlements, including the offer by Arab states to grant visas to Israelis and to allow Israeli airline EL AL to fly through Arab air space.

Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party has formed a coalition with extreme right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties, has not yet backed the establishment of a Palestinian state and his government opposes negotiating on the issues of the borders of Israel, the fate of Jerusalem or Palestinian refugees.

A Broker not an Israel Lobbyist

However, Obama's Middle East policy at the moment is much more focused on Iran than on Israel. The US is determined to prevent Tehran from building a nuclear weapon. Washington is convinced that a nuclear-armed Iran would set off an arms race across the region.

That is why Obama is offering the Tehran regime talks without any preconditions. The US is trying to form a common position with the Chinese, Russians and Europe when it comes to Iran.

There are, however, many who find it difficult to understand the harsh tone toward Jerusalem and the more indulgent one toward Tehran. US historian Jeffrey Herf, who has close ties to the US Democrats, says that the policy the White House is pursuing is both "naïve and potentially dangerous." 

Were Israel to actually meet Washington's demands, it could make the Chinese and Russians more willing to cooperate on the peace process. And Washington's insistence upon the creation of a Palestinian state could lead to an easing of tensions with those critical of Israel. The US wants to prove that it can be more than just a lobbyist for Israel, that it can also be an honest broker. Perhaps the most important source of energy in foreign policy is trust -- and the Bush administration all but squandered it. Now Obama wants to renew that source.

That was why Joe Biden also reminded the AIPAC gathering in Washington that the US needed more than just one friend. "The nation who asserts it leads, but has no one following, is not leading," he said.

This time, no one applauded.

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