x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Settlements and Iraq: missing keys to Obama's speech

Not once in his address to Aipac did US President Barack Obama mention either the Israeli "settlements" or "Iraq", although he mentioned Iran 40 times. Yet no discussion of Israel and Iran today can escape those words.

There were two words notably absent from President Barack Obama's speech to a prominent pro-Israel lobby group on Sunday, two words without which it is impossible to understand the discussion about Iran's nuclear programme. Those words are "settlements" and "Iraq".

Not once in his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the largest pro-Israel lobby in the United States, did Mr Obama mention either the Israeli occupation or the Iraq war, although he mentioned Iran 40 times.

Yet no discussion of Israel and Iran today can escape those words. Mr Obama talked of pursuing peace in Palestine, but did not mention the illegal settlements that crowd the West Bank. These settlements are the core of Israel's occupation; their endless expansion, in the face of international and even US condemnation, are the reason for the continued hostilities and for Israel's isolation.

Mr Obama's failure to mention settlements demonstrates how skewed the debate is about Israel and Palestine in the United States, where Palestinians lack the influence that Aipac and other advocates of Israel have with Washington. Without addressing the settlement issue, there is no chance of a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbours.

Iraq was the other spectre in the room. No US foreign entanglement can escape the long shadow of the second Iraq war. In a very real sense, Americans are still paying the price of Iraq: the war had a grave and continuing effect on military families, on US credibility around the world, and on the US economic outlook.

It has not only been Iraq: Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan - now the longest US war - and are tangled in the thicket of Pakistan. Another avoidable military adventure is the last thing the United States needs - and, frankly, the region and the world could do without the attendant bloodshed and political fallout.

So Mr Obama's marginally tough talk directed at Israel, admonishing that there had been "too much loose talk of war" and pointedly saying he would use force to defend the US "and its interests" (rather than the usual "and our allies" formulation), reflected a desire to halt Israel's push for a US attack on Iran.

The wider truth is that America has had a different experience of combat operations over the past decade than Israel has. US caution stems in part from the blood and treasure spent in Middle East wars.

America and Israel, however, are united on this: Iran's increasing bellicosity does challenge the dynamics of the region, swinging the pendulum of power slightly away from the United States.

But the focus on the dangers posed by Iran, while not untrue, are at least partly disingenuous. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows this: his public belligerence about Iran is good politics, and a distraction from the real issue of illegal settlements. Mr Netanyahu's support derives from the settler movement and other right-wing elements, which are determined to continue the project of "Greater Israel". For that to continue, Israel's public, and the world, need to be distracted.

Thus, Mr Netanyahu hammers at the topic of Iran's nuclear programme to avoid discussing the injustice of the occupation, and to obscure just how isolated Israel is in the world and the reasons why that is so. Warnings about Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb have been boilerplate for Israeli officials for years - Iran has been on the "brink" of acquiring a nuclear bomb, always just months away, for the better part of a decade.

Mr Netanyahu is a political survivor in part because of his ability to delay. During his last stint as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, he faced pressure from Bill Clinton, who had hoped a two-state solution would be one of his presidency's legacies. Mr Netanyahu delayed and prevaricated until the political momentum was lost. He may hope to delay Mr Obama similarly, having been pressured over settlements early in this presidential term. His calculation is rawly political: settlements, not security, are the real issue.

Mr Obama is less political but also less emotional. He leads with his head rather than his heart, perhaps too much. He has attempted to put daylight between his administration and Israel's, in the recognition that the world is being reshaped. In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has changed everything. Elsewhere too, America's focus is shifting.

The United States is a global power, and its interests are global: as China rises, there are more and larger challenges further east. Israel's endless talk about Iran sometimes seems like an attempt to gain the attention of a distracted patron.

In his speech on Sunday, Mr Obama told the Israelis and their supporters, "not yet" on war. As America's global priorities shift, one day soon he may tell them "no".



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai