Obama and Netanyahu met (again) and managed a pretty good rendition of calm and purposeful intent. But Obama's two goals--a nuclear-free world and a peaceful Middle East--increasingly appear to be political pocket lint trapped in his extremely smart suits
What exactly went on behind closed doors in the latest – and this time photographed – Obama-Netanyahu meeting will gradually spill out, but at first blush it seems the US President is willing to play the nuclear non-proliferation hypocrite in order to re-start the so-called and seemingly never ending Middle East peace process.
As the American and Israeli leaders emerged from yet another meeting to put on a show of, in teen parlance, “BFF” (aka best friends forever) there were precious few indications this reunion would be any more bankable than that of adolescent BFFs.
The details or ‘outcomes’ were predictably opaque, apart from one glaring issue: Israel’s nukes.
Before their tête-a-tête, Israel was rattled by the Obama administration’s signing up to a request that Israel be referenced in terms of its signing or not signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty that other nuclear countries are compliant with. Heck, even Iran is a signatory and it doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, and North Korea, in compliance with NPT requirements, abandoned it on acquisition of a domestic nuclear arsenal (however imperfect).
Israel does not want to admit to one of the diplomatic world’s worst kept secrets – that it is a nuclear nation, and believed the Americans had assured it that the nudge-nudge-wink-wink farcical policy nods of previous American administrations would continue.
Then three elements collided.
First was Obama’s desperate bid to earn his Nobel Peace Prize by going all out on his dream of a nuclear free world. No sooner was that launched than nations of the world met to review the NPT and the Arab nations not surprisingly demanded the final document reference Israel, thereby formally spotlighting its nuclear arsenal. Next was the rescheduling of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting that had been postponed when the Israeli leader returned suddenly to deal with fall-out from the botched bid by Israeli defence forces to stop the Gaza aid flotilla.
The US’s NPT stance was seen by Israel as another sign of unreliability by Obama, and not without reason given US officials had discussed the NPT document with Israel before the meeting, the outcome of which served to further a growing belief amongst Israeli politicians, diplomats and prominent American Jewish Lobby members that Obama is inexperienced and not a reliable puppet/friend who seems to be inching steadily away from the unquestioning, sure bet of the preceding Bush regime.
As Time magazine highlighted recently the two current leaders – one a former commando and the other a former law professor – are from vastly different backgrounds which have shaped their, understandably, equally vastly different views of the world.
Fast-forward to the White House this week and the rhetoric was big. The relationship between the two countries is “unbreakable” they chant…and chant…and chant as have their predecessors, in the way that if something is said over and over again it must be true.
But what is the essence of the ‘relationship’? How vital is political support from the powerful Jewish political lobby, particularly considering Obama is facing tough midterms in a few months time?
Both leaders speak large about the similarities of their peoples and their values in each democracy – which may be o.k. if you are a Jew in Israel, or even the diaspora, rather than one of the many Palestinians for whom the state resembles more of an ethnocracy than a democracy.
The “values” also seem to hit their own ideological security fence when the two leaders expect all and sundry to accept Netanyahu dissing Iran for “brutalising its own people”. He is no doubt correct and Iran’s behaviour is consistently inexcusable, but perhaps from the Israeli PM this categorisation is a case of a certain kitchen implement calling another “noir”.
But it is on the issue of nukes that Obama’s stance is outrageously out of whack.
At the post-meeting press conference he used all his law professor elegance to slip around the NPT relationship, straight out of the old ‘neither confirm nor deny’ box New Zealand found so unacceptable in terms of nuclear-powered US ships in the 1980s.
Obama contends that given Israel’s size and history, the region in which it resides and the threats leveled at it, it has “unique security issues and has to be able to respond”. What utter baloney in terms of a nuke free pass…but what a perfect excuse for Iran perhaps.
Iran, too, is surrounded by enemies (of its theocracy amongst other issues) and it lives under constant threat that Israel will push the red button.
Both nations of course are authors of their own insecurities, and ideally neither should live with the threat of annihilation – partial or otherwise. Nor should Iran use proxies to incite terrorist activities aimed at Israel or any other state – perhaps Mossad could take a note of that.
In delivering the free pass on the NPT issue Obama undermines the efforts of his negotiators working to sort out North Korea and Iran. Anyone - General James L. Jones included – who says if Israel is singled out so too should Iran be, conveniently forgets Iran is a fully fledged compliant signatory so doesn’t need singling out.
Diplomacy is of course all about give and take and sucking up the often unpalatable to gain a sure bet.
In this case Obama will perhaps be able to justify his nuclear hypocrisy if he has tied Netanyahu to an extension of the freeze on Israeli building in occupied Palestinian territories, or perhaps a stay of eviction for Palestinians being marched out of East Jerusalem.
Only a year ago, however, Netanyahu declared he’ll be damned if the Americans were going to tell him whether he could build in East Jerusalem or not, and he’s recently dismissed any thought of extending the September deadline for the building freeze.
Now the test will be whether Obama has done a deal that will finally see Israel bend on East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, and outsmart the belligerence of Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition he is often seen as prisoner to and which increasingly appears to have little good reason bothering with a peace process.
Easing the Gaza blockade and indicting officers and soldiers for actions during the 2008-09 'Operation Lead' Gaza offensive may show a nod to a certain mea culpa that will definitely help if the peace process is to be furthered.
However if Netanyahu doesn’t manage to convince the Palestinians he’s genuine with “concrete steps” he’s ready to put on the table, then two of Obama’s mighty fine and noble quests – a nuclear free world and a peaceful Middle East - will be little more than political pocket lint trapped in his extremely smart suits.
If that is the case, then the US-Israel relationship is not so much “unbreakable” as mutually assured political destruction.