Obama officials despair as poll outcome puts focus on US-Israeli links
- The Guardian, Thursday 12 February 2009
Middle East specialists in the Obama administration yesterday looked in despair at the Israeli election results, seeing their hopes for peace in the region fast receding. In public US officials adopted a neutral stance, but in private there is regret that the elections proved inconclusive, with divisions and deadlock on the Palestinian side now replicated on the Israeli side.
Professor Paul Scham, a specialist in Israeli-Palestinian affairs at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said he found it difficult to find any basis for optimism. "Maybe Obama can put it together, but the pieces do not seem to be there."
The election result complicates the review of Middle East policy under way in the US state department. Among questions up for discussion are the closeness of the US to Israel and whether that will undercut Obama's overtures to Iran and, potentially, Syria, and relations in general with Arab countries. Links between the US and Israel have not always been strong. In the first 20 years of Israel's existence, relations were often cool and Washington had better links with some Arab countries.
Inside the Obama administration there are officials who in private say how appalled they were by Israel's actions in Gaza, both in terms of the death toll and the impact on the Middle East. Open discussion about the alliance with Israel is difficult in the US. US officials, analysts and academics who question whether the national interest might be better served by loosening links quickly find themselves in the middle of huge squabbles and accusations of antisemitism.
Despite this, there are some who are prepared to voice such views in public. Glenn Greenwald, an author and political commentator who has questioned the US-Israel alliance, said yesterday: "There's no question that the blind, uncritical support the US has lent Israeli actions has harmed America's standing in the world generally, and in the Muslim world particularly ... For little benefit and much harm to ourselves, we have made Israel's numerous enemies, conflicts and wars our own."
The Obama administration will continue to back Israel, not least because the president wants to be re-elected in 2012 and does not want to alienate Democratic Jewish voters. Support in Congress for Israel is also overwhelming. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, at its annual dinner in Washington reads out an impressive list of supporters on Capitol Hill.
But Obama, without abandoning the alliance, may seek to press the Israeli government in a way that the Bush administration, or even the Clinton one, did not. He could change the relationship so that it is the US dictating to Israel rather than, as has often been the case over the past eight years, the other way round. That would make it easier for his administration to pose as honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians.
Scham expects such a confrontation between the Obama administration and Israel. "I can't see how an Israeli government that comes out of this election would fall into line with Obama's hopes for the Middle East in the short, medium or long term."
Judith Kipper, a veteran Middle East analyst at the Washington-based Institute of World Affairs, said the relationship between the US and Israel had to be strong, but not exclusive. She too expected confrontation. "You need this president to say eyeball to eyeball to the leader of Israel - and the leader of the Palestinians - what he intends to do."