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Will Obama Buckle?

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There is considerable discussion in Washington about whether President Obama is maintaining or easing the pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu. There is no real evidence pointing to the latter other than the silence from the administration on the just-announced plan to expand the Talmon settlement by some 300 units, a provocation and a test of Obama's resolve. Beyond that is the general fear that the Israeli government has invariably won these battles with previous administrations and the feeling that Obama will, like his predecessors, blink as the lobby quietly (or loudly) pushes back.

Only time will tell whether Obama will choose to prevail; I say "choose" because he holds all the cards in the U.S.-Israel relationship. If he wants an end to settlements, he can make it happen. Beyond that is the simple fact that the largest foreign policy challenge he faces, Iran, is directly linked to Israel-Palestine. Although the usual suspects say that the Iran crisis is a reason to turn away from pressuring Israel over settlements, more fair-minded observers take the opposite approach.

Robert Kaplan, the author and Washington Post columnist, believes that with deft handling the changes taking place in Iran can lead to not only a transformed Iranian relationship with the United States but with Israel as well. He rejects the idea that Israel's salvation lies in alignment with the Saudis and other "sclerotic" Sunni regimes. Instead Israel should look toward Iran-not the current government, but the reformers who will assume power sooner rather than later.

"Iran is so central to the fate of the Middle East that even a partial shift in regime behavior -- an added degree of nuance in its approach to Iraq, Lebanon, Israel or the United States-could dramatically affect the region. Just as a radical Iranian leader can energize the 'Arab street,' an Iranian reformer can energize the emerging but curiously opaque Arab bourgeoisie. This is why the depiction of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi as but another radical, albeit with a kinder, gentler exterior than President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, completely misses the point," he writes.

Kaplan, no softie on matters Middle Eastern (he served in the IDF and was a big Iraq hawk), believes that the United States must seize the opening presented by the post-election developments in Iran.

But he adds a caveat. Neither the United States nor Israel will get anywhere with Iran unless it addresses the issue that inflames Iranians as much as it does Arabs: the issue of Palestine.

"A future behind-the-scenes battle between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Iranians for a silent strategic contract with Israel can be affected only if the United States exerts strong pressure on Israel to cede West Bank territory. Never has there been a better time to push for an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, even if it requires the collapse of today's Israeli coalition in the process," he writes.

So add Iran to the long list of Middle East countries whose relationship with the United States could be transformed if Obama continues his push for an end to settlements and a Palestinian state.

Actually, it is not so much the substance of what Obama demands that matters as it is the fact that he maintains pressure. Neither Arabs nor Iranians believe that America will ever stand firm in a confrontation with an Israeli government. Quite simply, they believe that Israel owns U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. While this may not be true, it is believed widely enough to prevent America from making much headway with Muslims, whether Shi'ite, Sunni, or secular. It was only with Obama's Cairo speech that they began to consider the possibility that the United States was capable of approaching them with some degree of even-handedness.

Marc Lynch, the professor and Foreign Policy magazine analyst, has another set of reasons why Obama has to maintain the pressure: it is working.

"Obama's pressure has actually been quietly working," he writes. "Lost in the public pyrotechnics over Netanyahu's grudging utterance of an emasculated two state phraseology, Israel has over the last few weeks actually been making serious changes to the checkpoints and roadblocks in the West Bank and to the blockade of Gaza. The siege of cities such as Nablus has been lifted, major choke-points on key West Bank roads have been significantly opened, and journalists report being able to drive to Jenin without being stopped at a checkpoint. This is new."

He writes: "That Israel has quietly made significant changes to the checkpoints in the last few weeks-after ignoring six years worth of Road Map commitments, snubbing Tony Blair and the Quartet's persistent demands, dismissing the recommendations of the World Bank and other international development agencies, and greatly expanding them even while negotiating during the Annapolis process-suggests that Obama's tough love approach has actually been the only one able to achieve real results. It hasn't gotten much publicity, and it's only a minor thing in the wider context of the occupation, the battle over the settlements, the tortuous politics of the final status issues, the trends in Israeli politics and the disastrous Palestinian political divisions. But it shows that there is already something to show for his policy and that it's worth fighting for."

Lynch adds that Obama can lose these advantages in a heartbeat if he backs down. "Obama has to stand tough on the settlement expansions if he hopes to not squander the tentative gains of the last few weeks-and, more broadly, to see his administration's credibility on Israeli-Palestinian issues shattered forever," he writes. "This is going to be hard to do, since the administration is badly distracted by the events in Iran and might not see this as a good time or an important enough issue to pick a costly fight with Netanyahu. But that would be a huge mistake, because credibility lost here will be very, very hard to recover. Mitchell's abrupt cancellation of a meeting with Netanyahu should only be the beginning: he and Obama need to be ready to take concrete steps to force Israel to back down, or see all of the tentative progress they've seen made evaporate."

He believes Obama will take those steps and "surprise a lot of people."

But, fair is fair. It would not only be Obama who surprises "a lot of people" but Netanyahu as well. It is just possible that he has decided not to go to the mat with Israel's only ally in the world. Perhaps Netanyahu will begin the process of extricating Israel from a situation that is destroying it.

We have heard for years that beyond the rhetoric, Bibi is a pragmatist and not an ideologue, capable of the kind of flexibility Menachem Begin demonstrated when he evacuated every last inch of Sinai in order to achieve a real peace with Egypt that has held for 30 years. Maybe he sees the handwriting on the wall; the occupation cannot be sustained without ultimately losing the support of the United States. As an Israeli patriot, he may just understand that he has to do everything in his power to prevent that from happening. In his heart of hearts, Netanyahu may believe that it would be nice to hold on to the West Bank. But in his brain he knows that maintaining Israel's friendship with the United States, and achieving the kind of peace Begin did, is infinitely nicer.

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