x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Worries about weaker ties with US could prove justified

Israel worries that the relationship with the US will not be as strong now Barack Obama is president.

TEL AVIV // It is no secret that Israel is America's closest ally in the Middle East. But soon after Barack Obama was elected the 44th US president on Tuesday, there was trepidation in the Jewish state on whether that relationship will last. Indeed, Israel may have reason to worry. Analysts have said Mr Obama may not be as accommodating as George W Bush has been in giving Israel a nearly free hand in conducting military operations. They said Mr Obama may block Israel from using force to stop Iran's nuclear programme - which the state views as the main threat to its security - while he engages in direct negotiations. Furthermore, they said Mr Obama may exert more pressure on Israel than his predecessor has to halt the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank and ease restrictions for the territory's Palestinian residents.

Some prominent Israelis said yesterday a change in US policy on talks with the Palestinians - which have shown few results since restarting a year ago - may also hurt the alliance. Dov Weisglass, who was a senior adviser to Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, said he is "worried" Mr Obama will turn away from Mr Bush's stance on prioritising Israel's security and cast more importance on rushing talks to create a Palestinian state.

"Our relations with the US today are at a peak in terms of diplomatic, military, technological and economic co-operation. This man [Mr Obama] was elected on the basis of making a change. This change may mean we'll go down from this peak, rather than up," Mr Weisglass said on Channel 2 TV. The political upheaval in Israel may also cast uncertainty on future relations. Israel faces a national election on Feb 10 after Tzipi Livni, the leader of the ruling Kadima party, failed to form a coalition to replace the current one led by Ehud Olmert, the prime minister who resigned in September amid police corruption probes. Opinion polls show Ms Livni running neck-and-neck against Benjamin Netanyahu, leader of the right-wing Likud party.

While Mr Obama's rapport with Ms Livni - Israel's chief negotiator to talks with the Palestinians - is expected to be smooth should she win, some question whether relations may be cooler with Mr Netanyahu as prime minister, since he is more reluctant to cede land in a future agreement and opposes negotiating over Jerusalem. Still, Likud politicians yesterday dismissed that possibility. "The Likud has ruled Israel during times of Democratic administrations and relations had been good," said Silvan Shalom, a legislator and former foreign minister. Mr Shalom said worries about a worsening in US-Israeli relations were exaggerated, and that when Mr Obama "will enter the White House, he'll get intelligence reports? and understand that things are more complicated. He'll realise that Israel is the real strategic asset of the US in the Middle East."

Still, many Israelis had expressed concern about Mr Obama before the election. A poll published last week by the popular Ynet news website showed 46 per cent of Israelis would have chosen John McCain, the Republican nominee, had they been given the chance to vote, while 34 per cent would have opted for Mr Obama. The survey showed more Israelis trusted Mr McCain to deal with the threat posed by Iran than his Democratic rival.

Israeli media has speculated that government officials share that view. "Officials in Jerusalem won't say it out loud, but Obama's support for renewing the dialogue with Tehran is making them very uncomfortable," wrote commentator Amos Harel in the Haaretz daily this week. "To Israeli ears, Obama's tone regarding that country's nuclear programme sounds slightly appeasing." Mr Obama, who has said the strategy of shunning Iran and other US foes has failed, promotes "sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions" to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons.

Dennis Ross, a top Middle East adviser to two former US presidents, George H W Bush and Bill Clinton, defended Mr Obama and said he would protect Israel's "vital interests". In a column published on Tuesday in the Israel Hayom daily, Mr Ross, who advises Mr Obama, wrote that "if at the end of the day diplomacy will fail, the fact that we negotiated directly and Iran nevertheless chose the path of refusal will create a totally different context for tougher options".

Mr Obama's preference for dialogue may be instrumental in the Israel-Syria peace track. In May, Israel and its northern neighbour opened indirect negotiations for the first time in eight years. Syria hopes to win back the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau taken over by Israel during the 1967 war. On its end, Israel is demanding that Syria cease its support for Iran and for the militant groups Hizbollah and Hamas.

Still, contacts have been suspended in recent months amid the political uncertainty in Israel. Analysts have said a deal would be hard to conclude without the involvement of the United States, which has so far been cool on the talks. "Start with Syria," Aluf Benn, diplomatic editor of Haaretz, urged Mr Obama in a column yesterday with the headline "Advice for the Winner". "The Syrian track is less complicated than the Palestinian mess. There is no guarantee of success, but at the moment, your best shot at a Nobel Peace Prize lies between Jerusalem and Damascus."

vbekker@thenational.ae