Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A New Relationship with Israel?

Before President Obama headed on his trip to the Middle East, he said something interesting about Israel. During an interview with NPR, he stated that:

What is also true is that part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region, is profoundly negative — not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region.

Perhaps this will signal a shift from the Bush administration’s staunch backing of Israel in nearly all cases. These comments come as other Jewish groups have risen to challenge AIPAC. One example would be J-Street, an organization started by Jewish liberals which claims to be pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group opposes the settlements, opposes military action on Iran, and wants to work for peace between Israel and Syria.

These comments could also signal continued tension with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two met at the White House in May, but Netanyahu still has not signed onto the two state solution, and many observers believe that he is not crazy about Obama’s approach to Iran. Netanyahu wants a clear deadline on an end to diplomacy with Iran; after diplomacy has failed, one assumes that Netanyahu would press for military action.

Yet at the same time, Netanyahu surely does not want undue tension with Obama. The US-Israel relationship is extremely important to Israeli voters as it should be. Voters could well punish the Netanyahu government if it seems like it has weakened relations with the Obama administration. Moreover, Netanyahu needs US support in the region. If he wants to use military force to stop Iran from acquiring a military weapon, it would be much better to have the US onboard.

So what I expect all this to mean is that Obama will continue pressing Netanyahu hard on settlements and on the two-state question. Obama believes that only by solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict can the US effectively focus on Iran. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Obama-Netanyahu relationship unfolds in the coming months and years.

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