Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Good And Bad

U.S. President Barak Obama has tightened the screws on Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu’s thumbs.

In the pivotal “Cairo Speech” last Thursday, Obama hinted at a new Middle East initiative. Yesterday Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel. The press reports that Mitchell will try to push Israel into concessions as part of what the US sees as a window of opportunity presented by Obama’s new presidency. The push is on, he press reports, to get something signed before the shine wars off Obama’s glamour and his popularity dips.

According to the Israeli media Obama’s Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emmanuel and political adviser David Axelrod, both Jewish, are behind the latest maneuvers. Pundits believe this move is meant to allow Obama to reach out to the Arab world in an effort to sway moderate Arabs away from radical Islam.

Obama is demanding a freeze on all Israeli settlement activity, as well as Netanyahu’s acceptance of a two-state solution agreed upon by his predecessor Ehud Olmert. So far Netanyahu and his right wing and religious coalition have rejected the call.

As of now Netanyau is backed into a corner, and growling. Many columnists write about the perception in Israel that Obama is trying to dictate Israel’s policies to benefit the Arab world. While this is understandable, given the Arab distrust of the US after Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, a two-state solution, analysts say, would require Israel to cede land to the Palestinians but no Palestinians are around that are both acceptable to Israel and have the power to implement a Peace agreement.

Some pundits believe that the Obama two-year plan seems at this juncture to be putting an inordinate amount of emphasis on the Arab-Jewish conflict as if solving that problem will solve all the problems of the world.

Observers point out that the settlement issue is as old as Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. Under the George W. Bush administration Israel was allowed to continue what is euphemistically called ‘natural growth’ brought about by expansion within the settlement as families have more children and the needs of the community require more housing.

The concept allowed the large established settlements like Ariel and Maaleh Adumim to develop into cities with populations in the tens of thousands, replete with shopping centers, movie theaters, gas stations and medical clinics.

New construction in these cities has been taken for granted. Homes, apartment buildings and subdivision are put up by entrepreneurial contractors and usually the units are bought quickly.

The new reality President Obama is pushing stops this ‘natural growth.’ Obviously, a settlement freeze, according to analysts, can never be implemented in the West Bank until the Netanyahu government adopts the plan that President Obama is selling.

Optimists say that if this new reality works, the world will be a much better place. If it doesn’t the world will suffer. But skeptics say that Israel and the settlements are not the lynchpins to the new effort, but may well be the scapegoats let loose in the desert as sacrifices.

Israel, say these skeptics in Israel, unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, and received rockets and mortars in return. Israel, they say, unilaterally withdrew from the 25-kilometer security zone it had occupied in S. Lebanon, and received thousands of Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets as payment.

Analysts say that today Israelis are calling for some quid pro quo before agreeing to anything more. So far nothing substantive has been put on the table. Hopefully when something is offered it will be to the advantage of all parties concerned, and help move the region closer to peace.

The only problem, the skeptics say, is that after more than sixty years of fighting between Israel and the Arabs, and hundreds of years of fighting between Arabs and Arabs, or Arabs and Christians, the odds of anything significant happening just because President Obama wants it are slim.

To which the optimists say, ‘But better slim than no chance at all.’

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to outline his own diplomatic initiative for Israel next Sunday. Only time will tell how far apart he and President Obama are in their
positions, and how close they can come to some resolution of their differences.

When one veteran Israeli journalist was asked to comment on Obama’s ‘Cairo Speech’ and the Obama plans for the Middle East he waved his hand from side to side. “Good and bad,” he said. “Good and bad.” This from a man who has covered the Middle East since the 1940’s.

“Good and bad.”

But which will win? Stay tuned.