x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Arab countries miss opportunity to cash in on strained Israeli-US relations

Analysts say Arab nations have lost the chance to gain political advantage from the souring of the US/Israel partnership.

Palestinian men were prevented from reaching the Al Aqsa Mosque seen praying in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday.
Palestinian men were prevented from reaching the Al Aqsa Mosque seen praying in Jerusalem's Old City yesterday.

RAMALLAH // The 22nd Arab League summit that ended on Sunday was, as is common by now, long on rhetorical support for the Palestinians but short on practical measures to implement such support.

Arab leaders did agree to draw up a strategy, in the words of Amr Moussa, the league's secretary general, to stand up to Israel. In this context, however, it was surprising that the apparently strained US-Israeli relations were not more of a topic. In Israel, the state of those relations continue to be under intense scrutiny, and it is perhaps just as well for Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, that the Passover holiday started last night. That, at least, should grant him a rest from the many headlines in the Israeli press questioning why the US-Israel relationship appears to have soured.

Yesterday's edition of the newspaper Haaretz featured four stories on the matter, while the Jerusalem Post ran with three. Israeli commentators all agree that US-Israel relations are at low ebb, though they divide neatly into ideological camps over who is to blame. Liberals blame Mr Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition partners, while conservatives pin the blame on Barack Obama, the US president, who is accused of being a radical.

Commentators of all stripes agree, however, that Mr Netanyahu badly misread the mood in the White House when, instead of quietly passing over the recent furore over Israel's settlement building in East Jerusalem, he announced at a meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying group, at its annual meeting in Washington and on the eve of his meeting Mr Obama, that building in Jerusalem was like building in Tel Aviv.

Mr Obama does not agree with this assessment and is not staking out any new position from previous US administrations in doing so. No country in the world has recognised Israel's unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem, and therefore no country in the world accepts that Jerusalem is just like Tel Aviv. Mr Netanyahu's was just another of a number of ill-judged remarks by high-ranking Israeli officials that seem to be part of an attempt by the Israeli government to signal that it will not bow to US pressure. After all, Washington did back down last year on its request for Israel to temporarily cease settlement construction in all occupied territory, including East Jerusalem.

But again on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu had to distance himself from comments attributed to "confidantes" and leaked to another Israeli newspaper, Yedioth Ahronot, that Mr Obama was Israel's "greatest disaster" and that the US administration was "very, very hostile". Meanwhile, the Israeli government has yet to decide on a response to what Haaretz reports are 10 demands from the US administration, including a freeze on settlement construction in Jerusalem, the issue that sparked the current row. With Passover and Easter coinciding, Mr Netanyahu may be relieved to have another week to formulate a response.

The United States, meanwhile, has been discussing Israel and the Palestinians with its European allies. Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is expected at the White House today, and there have been suggestions in the Israeli press that with US relations strained, the EU, traditionally more critical of Israeli practices in occupied territory, will feel freer to apply more pressure. European diplomats reject the notion that they have been granted a freer hand by the United States and insist that they will continue pursuing their normal policies. One suggested, on condition of anonymity, that the change is entirely from Washington and that with regard to US-Israel relations something "had to yield".

Yet Palestinians remain sceptical. In public, they will point out, both US and Israeli officials are keen to play down their differences while in practice, nothing has changed. Indeed, at the height of the row over settlement construction in Jerusalem, the Obama administration requested almost US$3 billion (D11bn) in mostly military assistance for Israel in its 2011 budget, more than it has allocated for any other country. The United States also allows Israel to buy defence technology and fighter jets that are superior to what it offers other allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia.

Moreover, the formidable influence wielded in the US Congress by pro-Israel lobbies was on full show Sunday when nearly 300 legislators, out of 435, signed on to a declaration reaffirming their commitment to "the unbreakable bond that exists between [the US] and the State of Israel", in a letter to Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state. Members of Congress, like the White House, will be keeping an eye on midterm elections in November. Mr Obama may feel buoyed by his success in ensuring health care reform, but, said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli analyst based in Tel Aviv, from here until those elections, "we may well just be going through the motions".

George Giacaman, a Palestinian analyst based in Ramallah, also said he did not "attach a great deal of importance" to reports of souring US-Israeli relations. Nevertheless, that the US military had weighed in on the matter suggests, he said, that all was not well and Arab leaders at the Arab League summit had missed an opportunity to take advantage. "Arab leaders have historically failed to counter Israeli influence in the US," Mr Giacaman said. He suggested that Arab countries could take small steps, closing trade offices with Israel or using their economic clout with the United States, but were "too fearful of a backlash in the US congress, the Israel lobby and, to some extent, the administration".