May 18, 2009
is the most fateful encounter of two world leaders since Kennedy met
Khrushchev. And Obama absolutely must not allow himself to be cowed or
misunderstood as timid by Netanyahu, who is a notorious bully and
warmonger. (Bill Clinton complained that Netanyahu when last prime
minister thought that he was the superpower). If Obama can cow
Netanyahu, his Middle East policy may have a chance. If Netanyahu comes
away thinking he can thumb his nose at Washington, the whole Middle
East could be in flames by the end of Obama's first term.
two come to the encounter with starkly different agendas for the Middle
East. Obama wants better relations with Iran (which he needs for a
clean withdrawal from Iraq and for success in Afghanistan). And Obama
wants to be the president who finally established a Palestinian state,
implemented a two-state solution, and resolved the long-running
Arab-Israeli conflict, which has generated so many wars and so much
terrorism and instability. (As I have said before, the key problem in all this is Palestinian statelessness.)
on the other hand wants to attack Iran and attempt to destroy its
nuclear enrichment research facilities. And he absolutely does not
under any circumstances want a Palestinian state or to be forced to
withdraw Israeli squatters from the Palestinian territories that they
have been colonizing since 1967 (unlike most of Israel proper, the UN
never awarded that territory to Israel, nor has it been recognized
implicitly by international treaties, as Egypt's Camp David accords
implicitly recognized 1949 Israeli borders.)
Obama, concerned that Israeli sabre-rattling might itself lead to hostilities, sent CIA head Leon Panetta to Israel recently to demand that the Netanyahu government tone down its belligerent rhetoric.
Netanyahu maintains that Iran has vowed to destroy Israel, which is not
correct. The Iranian government is hostile to Israel and wishes that
the Zionist enterprise would collapse the way the Soviet Union or the
shah's government did. But it has said that it would accept a two-state
solution if that was what the Palestinians wanted. President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the face of the map,'
since there is not even such an idiom in Persian. He was talking about
an ideological collapse of a Zionist regime and its occupation of
Jerusalem, Islam's third holiest city. Iran has not launched an
aggressive war possibly since Karim Khan Zand took Basra in the 1780s.
plan to attack Iran's nuclear facilities would fail, and would only
cause Iran actually to seek nukes, which it is not presently doing
according to US intelligence. I like Israelis, but they are
understandably traumatized by all the things that have happened to them
since the 1930s and have developed an unhealthy hysteria and tendency
to shoot first and ask questions later. They were convinced that a US
overthrow of Saddam Hussein would change the Middle East in their
favor. It has not (Hizbullah in Lebanon has new friends in Baghdad, as
does Tehran). Obama must impress on them that the answer to every
problem is not a bombing raid. The good thing about having Rahm
Emmanuel in the White House is that he will be able to phrase the
instruction colorfully enough for it to be understood unambiguously.
Israeli attack on Iran might well reactivate the Mahdi Army and Badr
Corps as anti-American Shiite militias in Iraq- all hell could break
loose in that country, leaving Obama's hopes for a withdrawal in
tatters. And Iran has many clients in Afghanistan that could be
mobilized against NATO-- in fact it could join an effort to keep
military materiel from even getting to Afghanistan, leaving NATO forces
vulnerable to being cut off and killed.
Netanyahu's talk of
improving the economic lives of Palestinians instead of giving them a
state is also nonsense. Statelessness prevents economic security and
progress. And people aren't just motivated by material things.
Palestinians want a concrete manifestation of their national identity,
just as everyone else does.
Only a viable Palestinian state
resolves this huge decades-long mess in the short to medium term. I
think it may be too late but am willing to see what Obama has in mind.
Aljazeera English reports on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting from a pan-Arab point of view.
© 2023 Juan Cole
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