Rassegna Stampa Elezioni Israeliane 2009

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Binyamin Netanyahu’s delicate balancing act with Barack Obama

Posted by claudiacampli su 16 maggio, 2009

Times

James Hider

When Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, lands in Washington tomorrow he will have to attempt a delicate and complicated balancing act. His performance when he meets President Obama on Monday will have a profound effect on the Middle East for years to come.

Mr Netanyahu goes to Washington with a clear agenda — to convince the US Administration to focus its efforts on preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons capability. He also wants to put the issue of Palestinian statehood on a back burner and avoid the two issues being linked.

For Mr Obama, who will make a keynote address in Cairo next month in an attempt to heal his country’s damaged ties with the Muslim world, ensuring a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks will be crucial to shoring up US credibility in the region.

Both men are highly intelligent leaders and gifted orators. The US-educated Mr Netanyahu — who once served in a commando unit and who prides himself on his knowledge of counter-terrorism — is likely to see the younger, left-of-centre Mr Obama as a novice in the political quicksands of Middle Eastern politics, but he must tread carefully. In 1996, during his first term as Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu reduced President Clinton to spluttering expletives after his guest had left. It terminally soured his relations with Washington. Mr Obama will also be aware that many Israelis view their new Prime Minister as a man who is quick to bluster, but often ready to back down under pressure.

Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing Government has been busy drawing up a new formula for tackling the intractable conflict with the Palestinians since taking office two months ago in a closely fought election. No public pronouncement has been made, but senior officials say the 16-year-old Oslo peace process has been thrown out and a fresh approach is being developed.

That appears to be based on a decision not to grant full statehood to the Palestinians. Officials argue that, with the Palestinians divided between the Fatah administration in the West Bank and the Iranian-backed Hamas leadership of Gaza, there is no real way of achieving a peace breakthrough. Mr Netanyahu has, rather, talked about granting autonomy to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, accompanied by massive economic investment to raise standards of living, which would bring down violence.

Mr Obama cannot be seen to endorse such a vision publicly. Washington has reiterated its commitment to a two-state solution and insisted that peace talks should be resumed. Mr Netanyahu, bowing to such pressure, said in a meeting this week with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian President, that he expected negotiations to resume in the coming weeks. He cannot, however, yield too much to America without losing the support of his religious-nationalist coalition.

The United States and Britain are also keen on capitalising on an Arab League peace initiative, presented seven years ago, which would see the entire Arab world make peace with Israel if it returned lands seized in the 1967 Six-Day War. Israel argues that key clauses would allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes in what became Israel in the 1948 war, destroying its identity as a Jewish state.

There have been leaks that the Arab plan has been watered down to make it more palatable to Israel, although, with so much bargaining ahead, all sides are keeping silent about what concessions they might be ready to make.

Mr Obama and Mr Netanyahu will agree on one thing — the need to confront Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It emerged this week that Leon Panetta, the CIA chief, visited Israel recently to seek assurances that Mr Netanyahu’s hawkish Government would not launch any pre-emptive, unilateral strike on Iran. Such assurances were reportedly given.

But pressuring Iran is a common goal, and much of the talk next week will focus on the method. The US is highly sceptical about military strikes: a report released this week by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington set out the enormous military challenges, the slim hopes for success and the fallout — radioactive and political — of Israel launching its own strike against Iran’s three main processing and storage sites.

The report estimated that Israel would need a strike force of 90 aircraft navigating hostile air space while jamming radar to drop massive bunker-buster bombs on Iran’s concrete-encased facilities that are buried deep underground, hitting them at exactly the right angle for any hope of success.

It estimated that Israel could lose a third of its strike force, a massive price for a strike that may at best only delay Iran’s nuclear programme, and which could even spur a rattled Tehran on to accelerate it. It also predicted that a successful raid would spread radiation across much of Iran, killing thousands of civilians while winds could spread radionuclides across friendly Gulf states.

Iran would be likely to launch missiles at Israel in response, perhaps including chemical warheads, while hitting out with the missile capabilities of its proxies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. It would also probably order Shia militias to attack US forces in Iraq, arm Taleban fighters in Afghanistan and impede the flow of oil tankers through the Persian Gulf.

Given that Doomsday scenario, the two leaders may instead focus on further isolating Iran from its key ally Syria, which has expressed an interest in resuming peace talks with Israel under US auspices.

Syria is demanding the return of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau seized by Israel when Syria attacked it in 1973 and which is now home to about 20,000 Israeli settlers. A peace track with Syria would help Israel to duck US pressure on Palestinian negotiations, and hold the possibility of severing a key logistical link between Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas. It would allow the US Administration to point to progress in the region, while isolating Iran even further.

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