Israel Update 

Changing Politics in the U.S., Israel and Middle East Region 

By Sarah Ann Haves 
Jerusalem, Israel 

The United States has elected a new President and a new Congress.  Jerusalem has a new mayor and Israel will soon have a new prime minister when the nation goes to general elections scheduled for February 10, 2009.  Americans and Israelis have been in the voting booth lately, and there’s more to come for those living in the Jewish State.  But, by next spring, the new players in government and in power will be facing each other in a new round of U.S.-Israel diplomatic relations.

What we know to-date is that by late January 2009, a Democratic U.S. President Barak Obama, and a Democratic majority in Congress will be presenting the American people with new direction, especially concerning the U.S. economy and social issues. Obama was elected with the support of an overwhelming number of American Jews who voted for him because of his liberal domestic policies.  Israel was a secondary issue for them.

During the U.S. election, Exit polls in Israel revealed that a high percentage of American citizens living in the Jewish State voted absentee. And, a majority of them did not vote for Barack Obama. For the most part, they did not trust that his foreign policies would benefit Israel. 

This substantial difference in the voting patterns of American Jews living in Israel vs. American Jews living in the U.S. reveals a gap in what priorities are most important to the wider Jewish community. This could be a political challenge for Obama.

While the focus of Obama’s Administration is expected to be one that embraces domestic policies first, once the new Israeli Administration is in place, Obama will already be shaping his U.S. foreign policy strategies for the Middle East. What will his plans look like?

Jerusalem’s new mayor Nir Barkat is considered a secular Jew and a high-tech multi-millionaire. Barkat is expected to focus on policies for Israel’s capital city that embrace all sectors of Jewish society, along with benefits for Arabs, Christians, and other diverse groups living in Jerusalem.  For years, Jerusalem has been occupied by approximately 30% ultra-Orthodox, and a large sector of lower-middle income working class; and by many newer wealthier immigrants from France, England, and the U.S. who can afford upscale housing. Barkat wants to improve conditions in the city, and provide better education and affordable housing for younger families.  He also wants to provide more and better paying jobs for those living in the city, considered one of the poorest cities in Israel.

Barkat is expected to put together a coalition of leaders from the secular, modern Orthodox, and haredi communities to blend the diverse groups together rather than cause alienation. Though he is a member of the center-left Kadima party, his political views are that the Israeli government should not divide Jerusalem, and should refrain from putting East Jerusalem Arab neighborhoods in control of the Palestinian Authority.  

If current Israeli Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni, who is head of the Kadima party, becomes Prime Minister, her views will clash with those of the city’s mayor. That’s because she has already entered into talks on the status of Jerusalem with Palestinian leaders over the past two years; talks that include a compromise that would divide the city.

If current Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who is head of the Likud party, becomes Prime Minister, his views will coincide with those of Barkat.  That’s because Netanyahu has said he will not allow Jerusalem to be divided. He claims that he will not be obligated to continue the policies of the current Israeli government. Netanyahu is expected to offer the Palestinians economic incentives towards an economic peace.

Meanwhile, no one really knows how Barack Obama will shape his U.S. foreign policy initiatives in this volatile region of the world.  His appointment of Rahm Emanuel to the position of Chief of Staff has some thinking that Obama will take a more liberal approach to Middle East policy than his predecessor, current U.S. President George W. Bush.  Emanuel is Jewish and has one Israeli parent.  He was a strong supporter of the Oslo Accords and in charge of the Oslo White House ceremony in 1993. Many Israelis feel the accords failed when the second Palestinian Intifada started in 2000. 

What is now in place diplomatically is the Annapolis process, which came out of the Annapolis conference in Maryland, initiated and hosted by Condoleezza Rice and the State Department in November 2007. It became a cornerstone policy of the Bush Administration. The goal of this process is a two-state solution (Israel and Palestine), which the Bush Administration perceives to be the answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite Bush leaving office in January 2009, Rice is continuing in these final months to push that process forward.

While understanding that there will be no signed peace deal, as hoped for, by the end of this year, Rice has brought Israel and the Palestinians before international leaders with an expectation that what has been agreed upon will remain on the peace table, despite who takes over positions of power in the future.

Furthermore, Rice expects that Obama, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (or, whoever replaces him in 2009 or 2010), along with Israel’s future prime minister, will all work together to keep the peace process alive, including facts on the ground pointing to Annapolis, as well as the previous Road Map plan. So far, there have been mainly verbal promises and written drafts without much concrete movement forward.

Rice, like peace negotiator Dennis Ross who is an advisor to Obama, believes that a two-state solution must have broader international support. Obama may continue the process of bringing other nations into alignment with that goal.  He may capitalize on the perceived progress made so far between Israel and the Palestinians, based on secret papers brought forth by negotiating teams on both sides during meetings with the Quartet (United States, European Union, UN and Russia) this month. The question is, do meetings in private, conducted with weak politicians who have government positions that will be in transition next year, hold much diplomatic weight on the international scene? 

Maybe not; but, such exercises in diplomacy do make it more difficult for new emerging leaders to conduct diplomacy under a different approach.   

For example, Netanyahu has already stated that, if elected, unlike Livni, he will not give large swaths of territory in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to the Palestinians. He also has declared he will not negotiate on the status of Jerusalem.  This, then, already becomes a non-starter for the Annapolis process to continue if Netanyahu becomes prime minister. How then would peace negotiations move forward in this part of the world?

Obama may take a new approach; that is, embracing the concept of a regional comprehensive peace deal between Israel and Arab nations, one that would include the Palestinians, but be much wider in scope. This would fall in line with current State Department policy. 

The Annapolis conference broke new ground putting both Israeli and Arab leaders at the same table.  That was further exploited by French President Nicolas Sarkozy who hosted the first Mediterranean-European Union conference in July 2008, attended by a delegation of 43 international leaders. 

American and European leaders, along with some Israeli leaders like President Shimon Peres, would like to see a comprehensive approach to the Middle East conflict. This would be a way of bringing Syria to the negotiating table, allowing its current President Bashar Assad to come out of isolation, and giving him a better chance at becoming a regional partner. Yet, why would the new Obama Administration want to deal with Syria, when the Bush Administration has seen Syria as a rogue state and part of the “axis of evil”?  Perhaps, Obama, who has already said he would negotiate with enemy states if he thinks diplomacy will work, may want to explore all options towards a regional comprehensive peace deal.

In the past, a majority of Jews and Christians in the pro-Israel community in America were firm in their determination that Israel not be pressured into any kind of peace agreement that would hurt the safety and security of the Jewish State. While many still hold that position, there is a shift in strategies, especially among some American Jews.  The new more liberal approach is that, if Israel could potentially make peace with its hostile Arab neighbors, then why not consider a compromise on some of the thorny issues that have stalled the current peace process, and open that process up to more than just the Palestinians? 

Making the deal more attractive to Arab states, they reason, may give Israel a better chance at peace, finally bringing hostilities to an end.  Those American Jews who have supported Obama are looking for change not only in America, but also in Israel.  Without seeing much progress under the Bush Administration, they are hoping that Obama will take a more active role as a global leader in the Middle East; a leader that can unite nations together in a broad and unified consensus. 

In addition, it is Obama they hope can bring together a U.S. led coalition of Arab and European states to exert much greater pressure on Iran. By negotiating with Iranian leaders in diplomatic talks without pre-conditions, perhaps, Obama could get the Iranian government to remove President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from power, and therefore, stop the continued rhetoric calling for Israel’s destruction. If this worked, they reason, maybe Obama would be successful in also convincing the Iranian regime to stop continuing its nuclear ambitions.  The Iranian leadership may agree to stop threatening Israel publicly, taking it a step further by installing a new so-called moderate Iranian president, and agreeing to limit uranium enrichment for a short period of time. This might happen in exchange for a greater Iranian role in the Middle East; one that might have greater influence in the development of Iraq’s government once the U.S. is gone.

Furthermore, Syrian’s President Bashar Assad may also show his willingness to stop terrorist activity emanating from his country and Lebanon, as a sign of his desire to be engaged in U.S. diplomacy in the region towards a comprehensive peace deal.

What does all this mean and where is all this headed?

World leaders are looking at the Arab Peace Initiative as the new way of reaching a comprehensive peace deal, and Obama may just embrace that concept.  Introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002, the plan requires that Israel return all land obtained during the 1967 Six Day War, including the removal of all Jewish settlements, cities and towns in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria). The plan also demands that Israel relinquish control of the Golan Heights to Syria, and calls on Israel to divide Jerusalem.  Expecting a “just solution” to the so-called Palestinian refugee problem, Arab leaders expect Israel to allow tens of thousands of Palestinians to return to the Jewish State. These Palestinians want to live in houses in Israel, not a Palestinian state.  Many Israelis are concerned that this plan threatens a sustainable Jewish majority in Israel if so many Palestinians are allowed to return here. And, they are concerned Israel will not have defensible borders if the plan is implemented.

Arab leaders have somehow convinced Israel’s President Peres that this Arab Peace Initiative has merit.  Peres sees it as a starting point for negotiations. But, Arab officials who created the Initiative say there is no room for negotiations, and the plan must be accepted as is.

Until now, Israeli leaders have been able to use the process of peace as a way to stall the inevitable; that is, pressure to withdraw from land.  Yet, Arab leaders are beginning to become more vocal in their objections of Israel’s approach to negotiations.  They are looking for strong U.S. leadership to put pressure on Israel to sign a final peace deal rather than just engage in the process of peace. 

Right now, Israel and Syria, for their own political, diplomatic, and military reasons have indirectly engaged in the process of peace.  Israel believes it neutralizes Syria from siding with Iran in any future war against the Jewish State.  Syria believes it forces international leaders to recognize Syria’s objectives in the Middle East region, including its continued political and military influence in Lebanon.  The process of peace also delays war between Israel and its Arab neighbors; and, between Israel and the Palestinians, until one side or the other decides it’s advantageous to initiate a military conflict. 

It’s expected that American diplomacy in this region will continue with a process of peace on a wider scale, signaling to Israel that to engage in the process without actually achieving a final outcome will still unify Arab states towards the greater objective; that is, keeping Iran from “going nuclear.”

Israeli leaders, worried about having to implement the Arab Peace Initiative, may already think that the existential threat of Iran is a much bigger concern.  So, they may, initially, go along with the plan despite considering it detrimental to Israel’s overall security. They make take this risk, hoping that in the end they won’t have to seriously look at implementing the Initiative, but instead look to the U.S. to back them up on the security risks involved.

Yet, will the U.S. be able to do that for Israel, especially if it commits itself to the Arab Peace Initiative in exchange for Arab promises to get behind American foreign policy vis--vis Iran? Furthermore, how effective will the U.S. actually be in convincing Iran not to pursue its nuclear ambitions? Will the perception by the international community be convincing enough -- that is, that an Iranian regime change will solve the Iranian nuclear problem?  Perhaps, perception will be the most Israel can hope for.

Meanwhile, control in the Iranian government is not centralized around current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and other powerful and influential Iranian religious clerics have similar nuclear ambitions. If Ahmadinejad is removed from office, and if Iranian leaders make some international promise to limit their nuclear capability, while also stopping the vocal threats towards Israel, most Middle East analysts expect this will not solve the problem. Iran is expected to fervently carry out its uranium enrichment. It will probably do so under clandestine operations, perhaps, through its secondary underground secret nuclear program.

Therefore, any dealings between America and Iran can only be considered cosmetic when it comes to Israel’s security. How will such measures, only surface deep, affect the stability of the Middle East region? 

There is already an increasing dominance of radical Islam in the region, coming through the influence of expanding Shiite communities. It’s a surge in Shiite aggression which is spreading throughout the Middle East, threatening to tip the balance of power.  Therefore, Iran may not only obtain greater military strength through the development of nuclear bombs and weapons. It may also, through manipulation and threats, spread its radical ideology and weapons systems to terror groups and proxy states because of the allegiance of the Shiites. The nations where Shiite Moslems form a dominant majority are Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, and Azerbaijan.  They also have a plurality in Lebanon and large minorities in Saudi Arabia, Syria, UAE, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. This is called the Shiite Crescent.  Iran is leading this effort to achieve dominance, and this is where the West seems nave in its approach to foreign policy in the region.

Israel understands these matters, but is reluctant to opt for military action against Iran without a coalition of partners to back up the Jewish state. 

A diplomatic alternative is expected to be the policy of a Livni government if she becomes Prime Minister in February 2009; one that will opt for the Arab Peace Initiative, backed by Israel’s influential President Peres. But, if Netanyahu is elected prime minister, a military option will be more likely. 

In any event, Israel is preparing for war while working towards peace, a rule of thumb that has allowed Israel to employ stall tactics without committing to principles on an international level that hurt its national security. 

Continuing future diplomacy in this manner will be Israel’s way of playing with fire.  Not adequately preparing the Home Front for future battles; and, not solidifying a plan for effective deterrence now to stop the actions of terrorist groups and rogue states on its borders, may lead Israel into the furnace. One can only hope the U.S. will not help Israel get there faster through pressure and coercion. 

Dealing with perceptions and promises, and not the reality of the root of the regional conflict only puts a band-aid on a much deeper and dangerous wound.

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.  As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people from this time forth and forever.”
Psalm 125:1-2

Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.

(c) 2008 Messianic Vision all rights reserved. This article is not reproducible except with permisson from Messianic Vision. 

Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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