Harper and Obama moving in different directions on Israel

With a possible deal with Iran looming, the U.S. might have further surprises in store for the Middle East
Photo: PMO

Stephen Harper wasted no time congratulating Benjamin Netanyahu after the latter’s re-election as Israeli prime minister, tweeting his familiar refrain that “Israel has no greater friend than Cda.”

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Netanyahu’s stunning electoral victory came after he made his most explicit public statements to date against Palestinian statehood. His win may yet prove to be a pyrrhic one,for in the realm of public opinion he may have helped hasten the defeat of Israeli occupation.

Canadians would do well to carefully consider what it means that our PM is BFF with Netanyahu at this particular moment in history.

Canadians would do well to carefully consider what it means that our PM is BFF with Netanyahu at this particular moment in history.

A not so special relationship anymore

Netanyahu’s tantrum earlier this month at the U.S. Congress was another sign that winds have already changed as far as the Obama administration and the Middle East is concerned.

If one still had doubts, recent public pronouncements by President Obama and his chief of staff, Denis McDonough, are clear proof that the United States could very well depart from its traditional policy of unconditionally backing Israel and vetoing every Palestinian attempt at state recognition at the UN.

It is very likely that America’s first black president will leave behind, despite his other contentious policy choices, two long-lasting positives in the Middle East: a historic rapprochement with Iran, and a firm stance in favour of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. President Obama deserves applause for these initiatives, for the Republicans are incapable of changing course due to their deeply ingrained racism and ideological fanaticism.

And it is for this reason that the Israeli prime minister is leaning more and more on Republican support. As Israel finds itself on shifting sands, Netanyahu has become more hideous in trying to stand his ground. He mobilized his voting base by warning that “Arabs are voting in droves.” His address to the U.S. Congress, in which he raised alarm after alarm over Iran, its nuclear and its geopolitical ambitions, can be boiled down to this: the Persians are coming.

But while Netanyahu might win the Israeli election as well as the Republican vote, Israel no longer has Obama’s and Europe’s support as it did before.

But while Netanyahu might win the Israeli election as well as the Republican vote, Israel no longer has Obama’s and Europe’s support as it did before. Israel’s murderous assault on Gaza last summer provoked severe condemnation from places previously uncritical. In 2011, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was caught calling Netanyahu a liar, while German chancellor Angela Merkel chastized Netanyahu during a phone call for reneging on promises. Last year, Martin Indyk, a former member of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, went as far as resigning in protest from his post of special envoy to the peace talks due to Israel’s refusal to cede any ground to the Palestinians. It appears – and one certainly hopes – that Obama’s statement that he takes Netanyahu at his word when the latter says that there won’t be a Palestinian state is the final nail in the coffin.

Israel: no longer the only ally

None of this, however, constitutes the United States “abandoning Israel,” contrary to what the hawks are saying. It’s simply a rearrangement of policies, not a revolutionization of them. Israel will remain an important regional player, but it will have to accept the fact that there are other centres of power in the Middle East that the United States has begun to officially recognize. Iran is one such country, no matter how much noise Israel and Saudi Arabia make about it.

Collaborating with Iran rather than pushing it against the wall is more helpful in maintaining U.S. interests in the Middle East, the Levant, and Central and South Asia. With the help of Iran, not Israel, the U.S. is trying to pacify Iraq and at some point Syria and possibly Lebanon.

Seeming to understand the limits of U.S. military power in the region, Obama is letting regional players take care of their own backyard, with American supervision but limited military backing. Allowing numerous centres of power ensures that no one country becomes too dominant.

As far as the question of Palestine is concerned, the United States’ staunch backing of Israel has no relation to common sense. The unconditional backing of Israel harms that country’s long-term future, whereas the formation of a Palestinian state and normalization of relations between Israel and all its neighbours would strengthen Israel’s security. If the Obama administration votes in favour of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, it will do no damage to the state of Israel itself or to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

If the Obama administration votes in favour of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, it will do no damage to the state of Israel itself or to U.S. interests in the Middle East.

But Netanyahu does not wish to see this happen. He wants Israel to remain a belligerent state, to continue the occupation and theft of Palestinian lands with impunity. The Republicans, like Harper with his parroting of Netanyahu’s rhetoric, seem equally committed to setting the Middle East on fire.

With just two years remaining in office, President Obama can withstand the desperate Republican and Israeli attempts to derail him. For the sake of a better future in the Middle East, let us hope.

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