Sunday 24 May 2009

A Not So Special Relationship

The relationship between the USA and Israel has been regarded as "special" in many respects. Despite the fact that the USA is clearly the senior partner in a relationship which appears unbalanced in most of its aspects, the value of having an ally in the Middle East cannot be underestimated in US terms. This has become increasingly true in recent years with the US suddenly discovering that the scourge of Middle East-style behaviour and terrorism can also reach its shores. This fact gave rise to the invention of the well-known slogan emblazoned on many Israeli T-shirts, "Don't worry America, Israel is right behind you".

The relationship has had its ups and downs over the years. The last time it came under real pressure was notably when Netanyahu served his first term as Prime Minister, although there have been other times which tested the special nature of the relationship. There can be no doubt that the Jonathan Pollard affair caused a strain in the diplomacy between the two countries, a matter which remains unresolved to this day whilst Pollard languishes in a US prison. On the whole, though, the links have been symbiotic serving the interests of both parties.

I gain the impression that the election of Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu to lead their respective countries has caused a substantial change in the "special" relationship. It seems as though both leaders have taken a large step away from the positions of their respective predecessors in an attempt to try to redefine the ties that his country has had with the other. Each step has moved in an opposite direction. Netanyahu has made a point of not openly subscribing to the concept of a two-state solution as a part of a the answer to the ongoing Palestinian conflict. This premise is clearly a base-level building block for Obama in his desire to force a settlement on the issue. Netanyahu also appeared somewhat ambivalent about meeting Obama at this early stage. Such reluctance would have been unthinkable by previous Israeli Prime Ministers who always seemed exceedingly eager to meet their US counterpart. It can only be interpreted as an acknowledgement that things are not so easy between the current players. Obama, on his side, has also made some significant changes to previous policy. The "War on Terror" concept is out. This was always regarded positively by Israelis as it represented a level of American understanding of the constant terror threat that Israel lives under. Obama's statements about wishing to engage Iran diplomatically are interpreted in Israel as "soft" and clearly not understanding the existential risk that Iran presents to Israel. The fact that Obama can publicly announce a wish to engage in diplomatic contact with a man as undiplomatic as Ahmadinejad does make me wonder. If this is the case, who is Obama not prepared to talk to? On this basis, the answer is nobody.

Each of Obama and Netanyahu seem to have decided independently that they wish to conduct business with the other based upon a completely different basic understanding. This is partially driven by the fact that each has a predecessor whose policies are significantly different from the policies that are being pursued by the current incumbent. As such, certain facts on the ground require change to allow the new policies, and new style of working, to take effect. Despite the fact that each seems to be moving even further away from the other, certain things do not change. The things that don't change, even when a new administration is elected to power, are the facts on the ground. Even though Obama prefers not to refer to the "war on terror", it seems clear that he will nonetheless be forced to fight one. Even if Netanyahu prefers not to acknowledge a two-state solution, it seems as though he will not achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians unless he is prepared to incorporate this into his thinking. The dual dependency remains important and it seems clear that both leaders will be forced to consider the other's views in a more flexible atmosphere in the interests of maintaining the symbiotic nature of the ties.

It is often true that a new broom sweeps clean. I have no doubt that each leader is enthusiastic and has much energy to pursue efforts to make a lasting difference to the political landscape in the Middle East. Necessity, however, is the mother of invention. I believe that each of them will be forced to revert back to some of the rules of his predecessor's game and that, before long, this playing field will look more familiar than it does now.

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