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Obama, Netanyahu ignore the elephant in the room

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2012-03-06

Monday’s talks between visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama were long on the Iran nuclear threat and short on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But some say that’s to be expected in a US election year.

Days before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Monday meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House, analysts had confidently predicted the dominant discourse of the visit. Iran, they promised, would dictate the talkfest. Expect little on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Forecasts tend to be easy in a conflict that has raged for more than six decades, often following predictable diplomatic patterns. This time, the two leaders duly complied.

In a preview to Monday’s meeting, Obama delivered an address over the weekend to US supporters of Israel, a key constituency in this year’s presidential election.

In a 3,500-word address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) - a powerful pro-Israel lobby group – Obama laid out what he called the “focus for all of us today: Iran’s nuclear program” before detailing his administration’s policy on Iran. “When it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table,” said Obama although he warned that “loose talk of war'' would only play into Tehran’s hands.

The Palestinian issue, in sharp contrast, merited just a brief mention with Obama pledging his administration’s “ongoing pursuit of peace between Israelis and Palestinians”.

“You would think that since this is a major concern for Muslims from Morocco to the Middle East and across the world, this would have got more attention – especially since Obama was so vocal on this issue early in his presidency,” said Samer Shehata, from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.

Tales of disgust and distrust

Shortly after he took office in 2008, Obama’s focus on the freezing of West Bank settlement construction did not go down well with Netanyahu or his cabinet, leading to by-now legendary tales of the deep distrust between the two leaders.

Last year at the G20 summit, microphones caught Obama responding to French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s complaint that Netanyahu was a liar with an exasperated, "You're fed up with him, but I have to deal with him more often than you.”

During Netanyahu’s 2010 US visit, relations between the two leaders were so strained, the White House press corps was not invited to witness the traditional handshake at the start of discussions.

What a difference an election year makes.

In his welcome address at the Oval Office Monday morning, under the glare of the cameras, Obama reassured Netanyahu that the US “will always have Israel's back”.

No ‘nagging’ about freezing the settlements

Once again, it was all going as predicted. In a column in the Israeli daily Haaretz, published hours before Monday’s talks, Israeli columnist Akiva Eldar said the meeting would be “a masquerade ball” where “Obama will wear a friendly expression and pretend to be Netanyahu's best friend.”

Eldar went on to add that, “From Netanyahu's point of view, Monday's meeting with Obama succeeded even before it took place. This will be the first time that the president does not nag him about the Palestinian state, about the 1967 borders, about freezing the settlements.”

Shehata believes the silence on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is due to a combination of factors, including the “almost unbridgeable distance” between the Israeli and Palestinian camps, the increasingly hawkish elements in Netanyahu’s cabinet and last, but certainly not the least, the upcoming US presidential poll. “It would be suicidal to push this issue in an election year,” maintained Shehata.

When the ‘Great Satan’ and the ‘Little Satan’ find common ground

In the pre-election quest to find common ground, Iran’s nuclear programme has proved the most effective way to iron out the differences between the two leaders.

“Many in the US view Iran not just as a threat to Israel’s security interest but also as a primary obstacle to America’s policy in the region,” said Shehata.

“Seen through the lens of US foreign policy, Iran is viewed as a hostile power.”

In his remarks at the White House Monday, Netanyahu noted that in Tehran’s view, both Israel and the US are threats. “For them, you're the Great Satan and we're the Little Satan,” he said before looking directly at Obama and concluding, “For them, we are you and you are us.”

But Obama and Netanyahu don’t necessarily view Iran as posing the same level of threat and they certainly appear to be pushing different agendas on how to tackle it.

While US officials want to give sanctions time to pressure Iran to give up any military nuclear ambitions, Israel believes the threat is too great to wait and many Israeli officials are advocating a pre-emptive strike.

“Iran is said to be a threat for Israel just as Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were earlier a threat to Israel that influenced the push toward the Iraq War,” said Shehata, referring to the 2003 Iraq War. “There’s no question that many people in the US who pushed the Iraq War were intimately involved with Israeli political and security concerns.”

This time though, the US president does not want to be dragged into another war. Many experts believe that in their private talks, Obama has made this clear to the Israeli leader.

But if that’s the case, it was not done before the cameras – not in an election year.

Date created : 2012-03-05

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