Are Obama and Israel on a 'collision course'?

By Kim Bullimore

Since Barack Obama’s swearing in as US president, both the Israeli and US media have peddled the idea his administration would take a strong stand with the newly-elected Israeli hard-right government of PM Benjamin Netanyahu and foreign minister Avigador Lieberman. On May 5, for example, United Press International claimed that Obama and “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are on a collision course” over how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On May 7, Newsweek columnist Michael Hirsch claimed that Israel and the US were facing “a moment of truth” . Hirsch added: “for the last eight years Washington acted mainly as an unswerving supporter of Israel’s actions — some critics would say cheerleader — despite a few serious differences, such as the timing of the 2006 Palestinian elections. But the potential now exists for the most serious rupture of relations at least since 1989, when Secretary of State James Baker stunned AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] by calling on Israel to abandon its ‘unrealistic vision of a Greater Israel’ that included Gaza and the West Bank.”

Despite such proclamations, there is very little chance of a serious rupture between Obama and the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. While the Obama administration has called on Israel to state publicly that it supports a two-state “solution”, it has not threatened to cut funding should Israel fail to do so. Like previous US presidents, Obama has no intention of pushing Israel to end its human rights abuses in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). The primary reason for Obama’s demand for an Israeli commitment to a two-state “solution” is that it serves US imperialist goals in the region, seeking to gain diplomatic support from US-aligned Arab capitalist regimes such as Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia for Washington’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to isolate anti-imperialist Arab nationalist forces in the region, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Palestine’s Hamas.

‘Interests don’t change’

The corporate media have spun the line that the May 18 meeting between Obama and Netanyahu was fraught with disagreements. But Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, who was Israel’s ambassador to the US during Bush junior’s administration, told the Jerusalem Post on May 20 that the Obama administration’s policy differed little from that of its predecessor. “The basic interests and objectives of the US in our region do not change with different administrations”, Ayalon said, adding: “Approaches and nuances change but the interests remain the same.”

The only difference between the two administrations, according to Ayalon, is that Obama is “adding a regional element to the diplomatic process”. By this, Ayalon means that Obama will go along with Israel’s demand that Arab countries must normalise their relations with Israel before Israel makes any concessions on its military rule over the OPT. Obama has sought to give the impression that he supports the Arab League peace initiative, which would normalise relations once Israel withdraws to its pre-June 1967 war borders and develops a “just” policy in relation to the Palestinian refugees driven out of their national homeland in 1947-48. In reality, Obama supports an inversion of the initiative. As Noam Chomsky noted in a January 26 article on the Znet website, Obama has engaged in “carefully framed deceit” by calling on Arab states “to act [immediately] on the initiative’s promise by supporting the Palestinian government under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, taking steps towards normalizing relations with Israel, and by standing up to extremism”, while ignoring the fact that the initiative proposes “normalisation” only after a two-state settlement has been achieved.

The corporate media have also been full of rumours that Obama would support the strategic outline of a “bipartisan” report submitted to him by the US/Middle East Project. The report, entitled A Last Chance for a Two State Israel-Palestine Agreement, is authored by 10 former senior US government officials, including James Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank and US special envoy on the Middle East, and Brent Scrowcroft, national security adviser to George Bush senior. The report calls for the US to broker a peace agreement based on two states, swapping land on a 1:1 basis in order to leave Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank intact.

While the report calls for addressing “the Palestinian refugees’ sense of injustice” and providing them with “meaningful financial compensations”, the report rejects the right of return and instead calls for refugees to be given “resettlement assistance”. It advocates that any Palestinian state be “a non-militarised” one for a minimum of 15 years. That is, it would have no military of its own and would be forbidden to enter military agreements with other countries, in order to ensure Israel’s security. There would be a US-led multinational “peacekeeping” force including Jordanian, Egyptian and Israeli troops. Jason Ditz noted in a May 20 article on the Antiwar.com website that over the last two years, while withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, Israel has continued to attack it regularly, so a demilitarised Palestinian state would most likely remain Israeli-occupied territory in everything but name.

Whether or not these “leaks” and rumours are true, Aluf Benn notes in a May 27 Tel Aviv Haaretz article, “Welcome to Realistan”, that Obama is a “realist” in the mould of Henry Kissinger. While Obama pays lip service to human rights, his foreign policy “is directed at a single goal: strong America as the leader of a stable world order”. In relation to Israel, Benn notes that in the meeting with Netanyahu, Obama’s focus was on “common interests” rather than anyone’s human rights. “Obama’s demand of Netanyahu to freeze the Jewish settlements in the West Bank does not derive from concern for the Palestinians whose lands are being stolen, or from opposition to violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention”, but is based on seeking to ensure that Washington’s Arab collaborators in the region, such as Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and President Mahmoud Abbas, are not ousted by popular discontent.

Netanyahu’s aims

Netanyahu, like his predecessors, will seek to deflect attention from Israel’s intransigence and refusal to enter into any real “peace process”. Since 1993, when the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation were signed, successive Israeli governments have repeatedly told US presidents that they would cease building and expanding settlements in the OPT, in line with the various US-backed agreements. But successive Israeli governments have allowed settlement building and expansion to go unchecked in order to establish “facts on the ground”. The most recent case in point was Netanyahu’s immediate predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who, while proclaiming that Israel must end its occupation, continued the expansion of illegal settlements. According to Israel’s Peace Now group, during Olmert’s prime ministership, between January 2006 and January 2009, more than 5100 illegal housing units were built in the West Bank and more than 1500 tenders were issued for housing units.

The primary aim of creating such “facts on the ground” is to ensure that no viable Palestinian state can be established, so that any state that is established will be politically and economically weak and militarily dominated by Israel. In 1973, Israeli general and later prime minister, Ariel Sharon, who is recognised as the “father of the settlement movement”, boasted to Winston Churchill’s grandson that the aim was to “make a pastrami sandwich” of the Palestinian territories by ”insert[ing] a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in 25 years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart”. Avika Elder noted on May 18 in Haaretz: “The 15 years of ‘peace process’ have served as an alibi to build more than 100 new settlements and outposts, and to enlarge the settler population from 110,000 to nearly 300,000, excluding East Jerusalem”.

Netanyahu has said while he will not stop settlement expansion, he will remove 22 illegal outposts. The offer is hollow, because the few hundred settlers from these outposts would be resettled in the bigger illegal settlements. Netanyahu’s policy is reflected in the words of his most trusted senior political adviser, Uzi Arad, the head of Israel’s National Security Council and former senior official in Mossad, Israel’s spy agency. In an interview in March with Israel National News TV, a settler television station based in the occupied West Bank, Arad stated that Israel “want[s] to relieve ourselves of the burden of the Palestinian populations — not territories. It is territory we want to preserve, but populations we want to rid ourselves of.”

If Obama were serious about pressuring Israel to move forward in the “peace process”, he would be threatening to cut military funding to the Netanyahu-Lieberman government. However, Obama has already flagged increased funding to Israel in its 2010 budget. The Alternative Information Centre (AIC), a joint Palestinian-Israeli organisation, noted on its website on May 12 that Washington is set to increase military aid to Israel, while imposing harsher conditions on aid to the Palestinian Authority. AIC noted that Obama’s budget proposals for 2010 will increase aid to Israel by 10%, to US$2.775 billion. In addition, the budget also includes “an increase in the assistance to the production of weapons systems”. AIC also noted that the budget “calls for the administration to respect Israel’s claims on Jerusalem”, which “contradicts international law, which does not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the occupied territories of East Jerusalem”, as well as “the Oslo Agreement, which defines all of Jerusalem as a territory to be discussed during the final stages of the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations”.