US-Israel collision averted over Middle East peace, but for how long?

On the eve of a Netanyahu-Obama meeting, the decision by Hamas to join Fatah in a Palestinian coalition has delayed, at least, a US-Israel clash over competing visions for the Middle East peace process.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deliver statements to the media at the White House in Washington in this September 1, 2010 file photo.

The category five diplomatic storm predicted for the White House Friday when President Obama greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been sharply downgraded – courtesy of an unlikely assist from the radical Palestinian organization Hamas.

The suddenly clearing skies over US-Israel relations may last only a few months, with pressures likely to build once again as the Palestinians, led by President Mahmoud Abbas, seek to do an end run around the moribund US-sponsored Middle East peace process by winning a declaration of a Palestinian state at the United Nations in September.

But for now, the strong turbulence that many regional analysts predicted – and officials from both the American and Israeli sides worried – was in store for the Obama-Netanyahu meeting is considered much less likely since Hamas’s surprise decision to join Mr. Abbas’s rival organization, Fatah, in a proposed reconciliation government.

At one point both President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu – who on May 24 will address a joint session of Congress, a notably pro-Israel venue – were said to be mulling rival peace plans to be unveiled over a few days of intense focus on the Middle East.

At the State Department on Thursday, Obama is set to deliver a follow-up speech to his June 2009 Cairo address, and both leaders are on the agenda to address the annual Washington meeting of AIPAC, or American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the top pro-Israel lobby in the US.

But uncertainty over the Fatah-Hamas deal – will it hold, will Palestinian elections actually be held, and will Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel or to renounce violence, enter a unity government? – has provided both Obama and Netanyahu with breathing space – some analysts call it a pretext – for putting off major peace proposals.

Very low expectations

“I’m expecting almost nothing from [Netanyahu] and very little from the president,” says Arthur Hughes, a foreign policy expert with the Middle East Institute (MEI) in Washington and a former State Department official who worked on the peace process under the Clinton administration. The threat posed by “Hamas will be the leitmotif of what [Netanyahu] says to the Congress,” Mr. Hughes says, and Obama “decided even before the [Fatah-Hamas reconciliation] ‘That’s it, it’s all about [reelection in] ‘12 now.’ ”

Others who believe the moment is not “ripe” for any major peace initiatives concur that both leaders will largely steer away from a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

“I would expect that when Netanyahu goes before Congress he’ll be more focused on Iran and its role in the instability that worries Israel about the Arab Spring,” says James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “Obama on the other hand is likely to focus [in his speech Thursday] on the hopeful aspects of the Arab Spring – but in both cases they’ll steer away from specifics” on the peace process.

So what happened to the idea of Obama using the moment to lay down the framework of a final peace plan? After what some officials acknowledge was an intense White House debate, proponents of a “time ain’t right” argument carried the day.

'Not the right time'

“Basically [national security adviser] Tom Donilon doesn’t know this issue, so he defers to Dennis Ross,” the National Security Council’s Middle East director and special assistant to the president, says the MEI’s Hughes. “And Dennis’s view is that this is not the right time.”

Both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. George Mitchell – until Friday Obama’s special envoy to the peace process – favored a major initiative by Obama to use the Arab Spring to jump start peace talks.

Indeed, Senator Mitchell’s departure, announced in a terse two-paragraph letter of resignation, reflects how Secretary Clinton and Mitchell losing the debate was the last straw for the seasoned negotiator. “They did lose, and against the backdrop of next year’s election, Mitchell figured nothing was going to happen,” Hughes says.

Netanyahu is likely to meet with rapturous approval in most of his Washington venues, but that does not mean that everyone is happy with his approach to the Arab Spring as something to be wary of rather than a moment of opportunity.

Israeli group pushes for action

Indeed, in Israel before he departs, and then upon his arrival in the US, Netanyahu will be confronted by full-page newspaper ads being run by an ad-hoc coalition of Israeli military, business, and intellectual leaders who say it is in Israel’s “existential interest” to step forward at this moment with a serious initiative for establishing a Palestinian state.

The 100 prominent Israelis – among them 18 retired generals – say the US is doing Israel no favors by dialing back from a focus on a two-state solution.

Hughes sees it as a major problem for Israel how the Arab Spring, with its focus on democracy and human rights, has highlighted the political limits under which Palestinians and Arab Israelis live. This predicament is advancing a “delegitimization” of Israel, particularly in Europe, that is only likely to grow worse if the Palestinian statehood question reaches the UN in September, Hughes says.

Heritage’s Phillips says a vote by the pro-Palestinian General Assembly for a Palestinian state would not carry the weight of a Security Council initiative, but he says Israel should be concerned about it nonetheless.

“On one hand it would change nothing and would be purely symbolic,” he says. “But on the other hand a General Assembly vote proclaiming a Palestinian state would energize the Palestinian campaign to delegitimize and isolate Israel,” he adds, “and that could lead to major problems.”

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