Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Israeli soft power is on the move in Washington, D.C.

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 4, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 4 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Over the past week, Obama's new Israel policy has attracted heavy criticism in America's leading newspapers and television. It is true that Obama, right from the beginning, has shown a cautious love for the new Israeli administration. Although he made trips to the region more than once and visited several countries, including Turkey, seemingly he did not find time to visit Israel. In his Cairo speech, Obama unequivocally asserted that America's historic relations with Israel were 'unbreakable', yet with his open fire on Israel's settlements and demanding that Israel must freeze them before anything else, and that Netanyahu should accept the two-state solution as the only vision, the relationships were strained.

America and Israel also have been at loggerheads over the Iran policy. Whilst Obama and the Secretary of State Clinton were advocating direct talks with Iran, Obama called not only Iran, but all countries, including Israel, that they should give up nuclear weapons in his Cairo speech.

Last week, a crew of senior U. S. officials visited Israel to make progress on the Middle East peace process. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Middle East envoy George J. Mitchell, National Security adviser James L. Jones and White House's point man on Iran, Dennis Ross, visited Jerusalem, tried to smooth the strained relationship and gave 'a big hug' to the Israelis. After these meetings, however, the press corps mostly heard about the Iranian threat and how Israel keeps all options on the table, rather than how the progress on the Middle East peace process can be made.

At the same time, "Why Israel Is Nervous", "Tough on Israel" or "U.S., Israel at odds over 2003 settlements accord" were some of the few commentaries that were made last week in the American media targeting Obama and his policy on Israel. The latest polls also show that only a fraction of Israeli people believe that Obama is Israel's friend; similarly the polls around the world show that Israel is the only country among more than two dozen surveyed the public’s image of the United States was getting worse.

But what it is that Obama really wanted to achieve by making his disagreements with the Israeli leaders so obvious amid unusual public confrontation? One plain aim is to force an Israeli withdrawal while building credibility with the Arab governments and capture the affection of the Muslim public opinion. However, there can be also a bigger issue, which is not being talked about openly, as a drive force behind the administration's policies on Israel. And this is that, Obama wants to change America's heavily biased policy in favor of Israel, because he sees that this is an impediment to a rapprochement between America and the Muslim world. Therefore, what makes the Israelis even more nervous is that Obama might not stop his even-handed policy over the settlement issue, but a whole other set of issues will ensue.

The key motives behind the 9/11 attacks, as the bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report pointed, were America's arbitrary support for Israel. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who directed and planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks, told that his disagreements with the US policy stemmed mainly from the U. S. foreign policy favoring Israel. Also many former CIA officials came on the same conclusion. Michael Scheuer, a former CIA Bin Laden Unit Chief between 1996 and 1999, or Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, pointed out exactly the same key motives.

These claims were not being discussed at length as others in the past. One of the reasons, the experts claimed, this was because such arguments would have pushed the American policy makers to reconsider 'unqualified US support for Israel.' Since his campaign days, Obama repeatedly said that he will reach out to the Muslims and try to create the bridge once more. And so far, he seems to be willing to confront Israeli leaders. With an economically and politically weakened US, he might have concluded that in order to make real friends with the Muslim world, and go to the heart of the causes of terrorism activities, it is time to reassess the American policy towards Israel more seriously. This will not mean America will abandon Israel, though it means that Israel will not find America as its supporter when it wages raids on the defenseless Palestinian people and such other activities.

This new outlook of America's Middle East and Israel policy has had some unintended consequences already. According to the polls coming out from Israel, the shaky relationship between the Israeli coalition leader Netanyahu and Obama triggered the unexpected support of the Israeli people for the current Israeli administration and caused to lend more support for Netanyahu's unbending policies on the settlement issues. In fact, in recent days, we hear more often from Israeli officials that the natural growth of the settlement will go on.

Still, in case of using its perceived power in Washington, DC, Israelis will have to gamble big. If the goals of Israel and Israel's mighty lobbying arms in the capital of the US seem to be conflicting with America's security and long-term interests in the region, an unexpected backlash might occur among the American people, which are to say that basically the representatives of the American people will have to think about America's interests first, even if the love of Israel is rooted deeply among many Americans.

The Obama Presidency campaign had relied heavily on Obama's personality, his high ratings and also on the attitude of the American people. Now that his ratings are in a free fall and public mood is changing, Obama will need the support of the members of the Congress more than ever in the fall, and it will be even more interesting to see how much the Israeli soft power will play a role in Washington, DC in respect to even domestic American policy issues. The heavy commentaries of the last week may be taken as the first signals of that soft power as gearing up. On the other hand, National Security Adviser James Jones's meeting with Mossad and other Israeli officials in Israel last week over how the Ahmadinejad government can be cracked, were also leaked to the outside world by the Israeli sources. It must be noted that these leaks only made Obama's position weaker towards Iran's administration.

America's biased support for Israel has made conditions worse in the Middle East for some time and it is obvious that the present American administration wants to change it at some rate. How far the administration can go and how big a threat the Israel's soft power would see this new American foreign policy attitude is still remain to be seen.

© 2009 Hurriyet Daily News

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