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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Obama and Netanyahu: Round two

Source: Israel Hayom
By Sholmo Cesana

President Barack Obama is starting a second term in which he will be free from re-election concerns and the restricting pressure of lobbies, but he really wants to leave his mark, namely in the Middle East. But at what cost to Israel? The next prime minister of Israel will be up against a strong American president determined to spearhead a new world order and achieve stability in the region.

A reset? President Barack Obama escorting Prime Minister Netanyahu to his car after their 2010 meeting at the White House. [Archive] | Photo credit: AP

U.S. President Barack Obama's victory will be sealed when he is sworn in as president for a second time on Jan. 21 next year. This will be one day before the general elections in Israel, in which, according to all the forecasts, Benjamin Netanyahu will also win another term, his third as prime minister. A second round, and both parties are coming back with a fresh mandate. The American president's second term is seemingly one without too much obligation. The president no longer needs to ingratiate himself with the voters to ensure another term. The various lobbies will have far less impact and the president is free to prove that, through hard work, he can go down in the annals of his country's history as a leader of the free world, with a meaningful foreign policy.

Obama's first attempt at reconciling our part of the world did not go well. His big hopes for peace with the Arab world, his Cairo speech and his siding with the Palestinian demand that Israel freeze settlement construction in Judea and Samaria as a precondition for resumption of talks, proved to be a grave misreading of reality. He won a Nobel Peace Prize for having done nothing, his conduct in the face of upheavals in the Arab world, mainly in Egypt, was problematic, he handled the assassination of an American ambassador in Libya with weakness and has essentially ignored the ongoing massacre in Syria.

Add to that his inability to present a united front with China and Russia in efforts to paralyze Iran and prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, and you get a picture seen not only by White House officials, the State Department, the Pentagon, and both houses of Congress but also by diplomats in Europe, Arab nations and, of course, in Israel.

Now Obama is back for another shift and he will face a long list of diplomatic and security challenges in this region. Some of them apply to the entire region, and more specifically to American national security, like the withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. The withdrawal from Iraq will affect Iran's influence there, and by extension, the fate of the Persian Gulf.

Maintaining the existing policy, or alternately changing policy, with regard to Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia will also have a massive effect — on Israel. But obviously the main issue for Israel will be Obama's determination, or desire, to keep his promise from the first term: Not to allow Iran to gain nuclear capability.

Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the big question is: does Obama have a plan? And more importantly: who does he view as responsible for the diplomatic standstill? Does he plan to force the sides (mainly Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) to resume negotiations? Will the talks be mediated by the American secretary of state, a senior administration official or a combination of European and American representatives?

In Jerusalem, officials are saying that by the end of January, once the Israeli elections are over and the American president has been sworn in for a second term, things will return to normal and work will be resumed on diplomatic issues. Political sources surmise that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't change his past policies, not on Iran and not on the Palestinians, and that he will steadfastly hold on to his principles, resisting American pressure should such pressure be applied.

Meanwhile, Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich met with American Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro in Tel Aviv on Thursday and congratulated him on President Barack Obama's victory in the presidential election this week. Also on Thursday, Independence Party Chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak addressed the forecasts of a rocky future relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, saying that "the personal issues carry some weight, but ultimately it is national interests that count. I have spent time with Obama one on one and he is a calculated man who can exercise self control."

The next prime minister of Israel will be up against a strong American president determined to spearhead a new world order and to achieve stability in the region. The reality is changing. There is no doubt that the main question in the upcoming Israeli election will be "who do you want as your leader?" Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich and Yesh Atid ("There is a Future") Chairman Yair Lapid both suffer from a substantial lack of diplomatic experience. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an old pro. He served as a senior Israeli diplomat in the U.S. (at the Israeli Embassy in Washington and as Israel's ambassador to the U.N.), in a list of domestic positions as well as having served as prime minister twice.

On two major issues — the Iranian threat and the Palestinian issue — Netanyahu has shaped the national agenda, and in at least the Iranian issue, his agenda was subsequently adopted by the international community. All you have to do is look at Netanyahu's most recent visit to Paris and listen to what French President Fran├žois Hollande said: no to a nuclear Iran; no to preconditions in negotiations with the Palestinians (Netanyahu's main stance, which was rejected by Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy).

The Americans, like the Israelis, are proud of the unprecedented cooperation between the two countries on defense. On the other hand, the diplomatic chasm has only deepened. Obama thinks that there is time for dialogue with Iran, alongside sanctions. Netanyahu points out a dangerous process by which the Iranians are buying time, fooling the world and all the while enriching uranium and fast approaching the point of no return. The prime minister is holding on to the knowledge that the U.S. understands that Israel can take independent action to defend itself, and "instead of begging, I'm preparing," as Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu's government and Obama's administration face two major issues that will have to be decided even before the general elections in Israel: the first is the unilateral Palestinian request for an upgrade in their U.N. status, expected to take place at the end of the month. The other is the negotiations between Iran and the six world powers, expected to resume within a number of weeks. Senior Israeli officials stressed that in the U.S., Israel's interests are an issue that crosses the party divide and it makes no difference whether a Democrat or a Republican is in the White House. This has been proven by history, and if that is not enough, there is also the fact that there is a Republican majority in Congress.

Though Congress doesn't make foreign policy decisions, it does need to approve the president's budget, and these things are tied up in a delicate balance. The ten point decline in Jewish support for the Democratic Party has also not escaped Obama's watchful eye. In the American political arena, with the help of commentators, Netanyahu was seen as having given Obama the cold shoulder, and as someone who would benefit if Obama's Republican rival Mitt Romney won. Will Obama try to get even with Netanyahu now that the Israeli prime minister is up for re-election? We'll have to wait and see.

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