Why let Obama call the shots?
This week has witnessed two events of supreme importance for Israel's future. First, Barack Obama was sworn in as US president. Second, Israelis went to the polls. And Benjamin Netanyahu is set to head a new coalition government.
So, in one sense, it is "business as usual". Obama remains in the White House; Bibi remains Israel's prime minister. The two know each other well, or at least as well as two international leaders of fundamentally different outlooks can ever do. But the signs are that, so far as the dynamics of Israel's relationship with the US is concerned, the next four years may not resemble the previous four at all.
Obama is in his second, final term. He faces no re-election hurdle. Whatever restraining factors might have modified his behaviour towards Israel over the past four years will not apply in future. He is, therefore, much freer to pursue now the strategy that he probably wished to pursue in the past, but felt he could not.
The key features of this strategy are likely to include: forcing the Jewish state to abandon plans for the expansion of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria; extracting from the Israeli government a promise to evacuate most - if not all - of these existing communities; and cajoling or compelling Israel to reverse its annexation of east Jerusalem so that it may be offered to the Palestinian Authority as the capital of a Palestinian state. It is also likely that Obama will demand Israel lifts its blockade of Gaza, or even that he'll insist on Israel ceding a corridor across its own territory linking Gaza to the West Bank.
Having extracted these concessions, Obama will confront the Palestinian leadership with them, and demand in return that this leadership recognise Israel (more or less within its 1967 borders) as a Jewish state and acquiesce in (if not accept) the legitimacy of its re-establishment.
There will be no general "right of return" for Palestinians who claim their ancestors were displaced but there may be a token relocation of a few hundred families. Once all the details have been worked out, Obama will prevail upon the two sides to meet under his beneficent patronage and sign a solemn-and-binding covenant, thus bringing what the media term "the Middle East conflict" to an end.
Outlining this scenario to an American colleague, I was told that I had allowed my imagination to run wild. Obama (I was told) has certainly made no secret of his intense irritation with Bibi and Bibi's sponsorship of Jewish community development in Judea and Samaria. But, for example, he has said nothing dramatic about the status of east Jerusalem. This is true. Yet it's also true that fierce statements about east Jerusalem have emanated from the EU, and, in particular, from the British Foreign Office and its chief Middle East spokesperson, Alistair "friend of Israel" Burt. Burt shares with Obama the view that the Anglo-American alliance knows what is in Israel's best interest. I find it inconceivable that Burt would publicly insist that it is in Israel's best interest that Jerusalem should be re-partitioned unless he was certain of Obama's support.
What is Israel to do? Whatever political configuration finally results from the Israeli elections (and in spite of some clumsy attempts by White-House apparatchiks to influence their outcome) Netanyahu is likely to have a clear mandate to defend the reunification of Jerusalem and the rights of Jews living in Judea and Samaria. So the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington could become very sour indeed, even openly confrontational. But there is one step that Netanyahu could take to redefine this partnership. He could make an early public commitment to phase out Israel's reliance on the $3 billion worth of aid (all of it military) it receives annually from the American taxpayer.
As Canadian scholar Lawrence Solomon recently argued, Israel, a highly industrialised state with the best performing economy in the developed world, can now do without US aid: "a freed Israeli military economy, the single biggest factor in Israel's phenomenal economic growth, would only propel its economy to new heights." The sooner this is made clear to Washington (and London, and Brussels), the better for all concerned.