Analysis: An opportunity for Israel, if it’s smart

Israel, and its supporters, are squirming. For the past few weeks, Washington has slowly been ratcheting up the pressure on the Jewish state, releasing increasingly alarming details of the demands President Obama intends to put to Prime Minister Netanyahu when they meet in Washington next week. Mr Netanyahu must accept Palestinian statehood; settlements must be frozen; more responsibility for security must be granted to the Palestinians. Most ominously, President Obama’s efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme will be linked to progress in the Palestinian peace process. And Israel might even be asked to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

It seems likely that Israel will be pushed into making compromises it does not want to make — on the nuclear front in particular, they may even be harmful to its own security. But perhaps Israelis should breathe a little easier. Their prime minister has a secret weapon, and that is the knowledge that Mr Obama needs him just as much as he needs Mr Obama.

Mr Obama has always been clear that he intends to restore America’s international credibility. This is partially what got him elected. However, renewed respect for America will be hard to achieve as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict festers, stirring up Muslim resentment and opening up America to accusations of pro-Israeli bias. This is why Mr Obama has been pushing Israel so hard. And his marathon of meetings with Mr Netanyahu, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and PA President Mahmoud Abbas throughout May shows that he really intends to get a deal if he can.

Of course, this will put enormous pressure on Mr Netanyahu. But it also gives him certain leverage. Lack of co-operation will wreck Mr Obama’s entire Middle East vision. And Mr Netanyahu can use this in his favour.

For example, Mr Obama’s formula — no pressure on Iran without progress on the Palestinian front — can easily be reversed. Why should Mr Netanyahu not suggest that he will advance talks with the Palestinians just as soon as Mr Obama makes serious efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear programme?

There are signs that Mr Netanyahu understands this full well. A report in the NYT last week claims that when he meets Mr Obama, he intends to argue that the biggest obstacle to peace in the Middle East is the Iran, and there is no point pursuing a two-state solution until Iran — which arms Hamas — is defanged. This, argued a sniffy editorial, was probably aimed at “trying to ensure talks with the Palestinians never get anywhere”.

But perhaps he was, rather, setting out a serious counter-proposal to Mr Obama. If only he can hold his nerve.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010