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PV Vivekanand: Start of a new tug-of-war
September 13, 2012
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The crisis in relationship between the US and Israel has hit a new height with the White House turning down a request by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for a meeting with US President Barack Obama later this month. The White House was quick to release a statement indicating that Obama was not snubbing Netanyahu and clarifying that the meeting would not be possible over the two leaders’ conflicting schedules.

The White House also announced that Obama and Netanyahu spoke for an hour later on Tuesday and agreed to continue “close consultations” on Iran. They reaffirmed that they are united in their determination to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, the White House said.

That could only be a damage-control exercise since the two men had a record of a rocky relationship since Obama took office in January 2009.

Obviously, Obama knows well that an encounter with Netanyahu at this point in time would be uncomfortable – to say the least – given that the Israeli prime minister has been pressing him for military action to wreck Iran’s nuclear programme and will only repeat the same theme at the sought-for meeting.

Obama is not ready to oblige Netanyahu. The conflicting positions over Iran are only one of the many issues that have plagued relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government. From the very outset of the Obama presidency in 2009, the two men could not see eye-to-eye on most issues. Netanyahu was always weary of Obama since the US president had clearly adopted an independent approach that sought to serve American national interests above everything. That clashed with the Israeli insistence on imposing the Jewish will on the US even it meant undermining American interests. At the same time, it has been and is clear that Israel, which receives the largest share of US foreign assistance, will never yield to American pressure under any circumstances regardless of the issue involved. It wants to live by the rules it has set for itself regardless of international conventions and code of conduct.

Obama could not have forgotten that when the two men met in May 2011, Netanyahu had lectured him in public against his call for resuming Israeli-Palestinian negotiations with the start-off point being the 1967 front lines but with territorial compromises to accommodate the Israeli insistence on retaining the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

In early 2010, Obama had tried to assert his power and authority as the president of the US in order to bring Israel to heal over the Palestinian problem. He snubbed Netanyahu at a deliberate low-key meeting at the White House after the Israeli prime minister refused to accept a freeze in settlement activity in the West Bank. There was no dinner and no joint appearance for the press, and Netanyahu was told to make up his mind. But Israel hit back with such political force through the Jewish lobby in the US that Obama did not know what hit him. Under pressure from an overwhelming number of members of Congress, he was humiliated and had to back down in public. He had to “reinvite” Netanyahu to the White House, offer him dinner, have his wife receive the Israeli prime minister’s wife with sweet words, and declare his “unreserved commitment to Israel’s security” in front of the media. Since then, Obama has avoided locking horns with Netanyahu.

The dispute over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme pits American interests against those of Israel. The US knows that there could not be a “contained” military action targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. From the word go for the first strike, there will be unpredictable consequences that could force the US to wage an allout war.

The Obama administration has made it clear that it is not yet ready to launch military action against Iran and will not back an Israeli strike. Washington prefers to negotiate and use harsh economic sanctions to pressure Iran into dismantling its nuclear enrichment programme. Most Israeli officials seem to have accepted the US position, but Netanyahu is waging a lonely rhetorical battle against it.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu went one notch higher and said that the Obama administration had no moral right to block an Israeli military strike on Iran since it has failed to set a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear programme.

“The world tells Israel, ‘Wait, there’s still time.’ And I say, ‘Wait for what? Wait until when?’” Netanyahu said. “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” he added. Although he did not mention any names, Netanyahu was  responding to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Monday that Washington would not set a deadline in further negotiations with Iran, and that there was still time for diplomacy to work.

According to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, Washington would have little more than a year to act to stop Iran if it decided to produce a nuclear weapon. By snubbing Netanyahu, Obama could alienate some Jewish and pro-Israel voters. His Republican rival Mitt Romney has accused him of being too tough on Israel and not hard enough on Iran. But military action against Iran will not go down well with American voters.

An opinion conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and released on Monday shows that there is an overwhelming opposition to the idea of attacking Iran among American voters, with 70 per cent saying they are opposed to the idea of a unilateral US attack on Iran. The poll showed a declining number of Americans considering Iran’s civilian nuclear programme a “threat” to American interests, and solid majorities opposed US involvement in an Iran war authorised by the UN or in joining an Israeli attack on Iran.

The recent US record of waging wars has fuelled anti-war sentiments among the Americans, who have seen failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. A majority of Americans also oppose the aggressive US approach to Pakistan because they seem to be aware that there could be no military solution to the insurgency in that country that is only fanned by actions such as the daily drone strikes that kill mostly civilians. Apparently, the Obama re-election campaign has accepted that launching a new war is not only detrimental to the incumbent president’s chances for a second term but will also keep him bogged down and restrict his options for actions in the Middle East. And Obama has no time to listen to any further lectures from Netanyahu.

What we could expect now is political fireworks in the US. Obama will come under tremendous pressure to meet Netayahu either in Washington or New York this month. The initial torch has already been lit. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republican senators and critics of Obama’s foreign policy, said in a joint statement on Tuesday: “It is puzzling that the president can’t make time to see the head of state of one of America’s closest allies in the world. If these reports are true, the White House’s decision sends a troubling signal to our ally Israel about America’s commitment at this dangerous and challenging time.”

It is only the beginning of a new tug-of-war that would continue beyond the November vote if, as expected, Obama wins re-election. During the second term, Obama could be expected to look Netanyahu in the eye and take out his frustration and humiliation that he suffered in Israel’s hands during his first term at the White House. Israeli officials admit as much. “The White House treats Bibi (Netanyahu) as a bitter and hated Republican rival,” an Israeli source said. “If Obama is re-elected, Netanyahu will pay a heavy price. Obama’s advisers have been using the word ‘revenge’ when talking about Netanyahu in the post-election period.”

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