Forcing Bibi’s hand is just not cricket
Obama is hoping for a quick victory on the settlements, but Bibi is playing a longer game
It has taken time, but now President Obama is going for a leg break in the first test. Success unlocks an ambitious strategy for the whole Middle East. Failure could turn it into ashes.
A conversation with a US Defense Department adviser threw up a gem: “Obama’s policy on settlements is simple. He means to break Bibi’s legs.”
The strategy is basically this: with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on crutches over settlements, you go on to win a series of compromises.
As they unfold, the Arab states begin to play ball, and a minimal amount of pressure on the West Bank Palestinians brings them to the table.
“Bibi knows if he can get past autumn, legs intact, Obama can be played into the long grass”
Obama then builds on the thawing relations between the US and Syria and goes for broke on regional peace.
Obama has chosen the battle field carefully. Some Israelis are wondering: “Why settlements?”
The answer is Congress.
Anything germane to Israel’s safety runs up against the security barrier on Capitol Hill.
But for Congress, settlements do not come into that category.
Hence the widest Israeli/US rift in a decade.
The wave of US diplomats visiting Jerusalem this month was part of the leg break. Both sides — alarmed at the scale of public bickering in July — declared undying love for the other, but behind the scenes, the atmosphere remains tense.
The Obama team says it is not interested in verbal promises which may have been made by a previous US administration. To which — according to one Israeli source — the response is: “Are you saying that anything we agree with you only holds so long as you are in office and then everyone starts again when you leave?”
This impasse is supposed to be unblocked by the autumn. Mr Netanyahu comes to London to see Prime Minister Gordon Brown in the last week of August with Iran at the top of the agenda. US Envoy George Mitchell will also be in town to see the Israelis.
Progress is made, a compromise reached on settlement freezing versus natural growth. This sets them up nicely for the UN General Assembly in September — by which time Obama is supposed to have worked the Arab states.
A dozen informal bi-laterals are held in the “margins” in New York. And out of this emerges the Palestinian/Israeli talks. It is a realistic scenario if the compromise agreed with Israel is modest. After all, define “outward growth in the settlements” — is upwards outwards?
But as for regional peace, Obama seems to believe that if he says things often enough in that inspiring manner of his, it will come true. This was on display on Moscow recently where Putin clearly thought — rightly or wrongly — that he was dealing with a naive.
He has yet to score a foreign policy success and, on the domestic front, his approval ratings are at 53 percent and heading south. If he loses his healthcare battle, he will be horribly weakened. And, always, there is Iran.
Obama took months to get round to Israel. In the autumn, just as his Middle East jigsaw is supposed to make a coherent picture, the Iranian question will come to the fore. Once it does, the Israel issue may slide down the to-do list. It was never that high to begin with.
Mr Netanyahu knows it. If he can get past the autumn, legs intact, then Obama can be played into the long grass. And by that time, everyone will be playing Iran.
Tim Marshall is Foreign Editor of Sky News