AMMAN, Jordan – (MintPress) – President Obama has scored a surprise diplomatic coup by patching up a three-year dispute between Israel and Turkey. It was an unexpected turn for him as a conflict mediator and a last-minute flourish in his first visit as U.S. president to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan last week.
Reportedly, Obama kept prodding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to mend fences with Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, saying he needed the two estranged regional allies on board as the conflict in neighboring Syria worsens.
Erdogan had long sought an apology from Netanyahu over the 2010 Israeli commando raid that killed nine activists on a Turkish flotilla seeking to break Israel’s humanitarian blockade of Gaza. The deaths and lack of an apology from Israel strained ties between the two formerly close regional partners.
But political analysts are asking whether President Obama may be able to apply that same dogged determination to seeing a resumption of negotiations and a resolution to the so far intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?
The Palestinian struggle
Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi believes not.
“It’s clear that Obama’s main purpose was the visit to Israel and he came prepared for that leg of the tour,” Kamhawi said. “He was candid, clear, and focused on issues related to Israel’s security, its well-being and Jewish identity. He also pushed for rapprochement between Israel and Turkey.”
Writing in Politico, Josh Gerstein said that Obama significantly improved his once frosty relationship with Netanyahu and image with the Israeli public. Other analysts called it “a love fest” between the two leaders with public words and gestures of support in sharp contrast to the first four years of their relationship. They had been at odds over Israeli settlements and Iran’s disputed nuclear program.
Obama succeeded in changing a perception among many Israelis that his government has been less supportive of Israel than past U.S. administrations. Indeed, he went so far as to declare the U.S.-Israeli alliance as “eternal.” “It is forever,” he said in a speech.
Gerstein suggested that a closer relationship between the two leaders is “probably a prerequisite for progress on Mideast peace, even if there’s nothing to show for it right away.”
Kamhawi, however, noted that there was no evident pressure on Israel regarding Jewish settlement building or Jerusalem, major sticking points to seeing serious talks resume. Instead, he said Obama merely reiterated traditional U.S. policy “without teeth.”
“The U.S. is against settlements, yet it is doing nothing to stop them,” he added.
Obama, in a joint press conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah, told reporters in Amman that “settlements make a contiguous [Palestinian] state more difficult.” He said he told Israelis during his visit that they should think about “Palestinian children as they do their own” with hopes and plans for the future.
“Secretary of State John Kerry will spend much time with the parties and keep plugging away,” Obama said. “We’ll see if we can make it happen.”
But Kamhawi expressed skepticism, criticizing Obama’s remarks underscoring Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
“This is an issue which is detrimental for the Palestinians. It’s an invitation for a new form of apartheid,” he said. “You already have a few million Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli rule as Israelis. Now, if you are talking about the Jewishness of the Israeli state, then you are excluding these people.”
Kamhawi said Obama offered “nothing in real terms” to the Palestinian leadership during his visit to the West Bank.
Roadblocks to peace and resolution
“This probably created a general impression among Palestinians that they should expect nothing from a U.S. president, whether in his first or second term, black or white, short or tall. This is a position that transcends administrations and presidencies,” he said.
Kamhawi predicted that return to violence could ensue between Israel and the Palestinians despite a pledge by Netanyahu that his newly-formed government would seek a two-state solution to Israel’s decades-long dispute with the Palestinians.
“A new intifada is coming,” he said. “Once the Palestinians see nothing coming out of the peace approach, with the Israelis not willing to discuss key issues, the Palestinians unable to enforce their views and the Americans not really interested, they may resort to the other option.”
“The Palestinians may start a new Intifada just to put their case back on the political map and the agenda of the world community,” Kamhawi said.
Indeed, a brief U.S. statement released after Kerry’s initial shuttle diplomacy between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on Saturday — the last day of the visit which saw President Obama touring Jordan’s ancient red-rock city of Petra — made no mention of any hint of progress on that front.
Rather it heralded the renewal of ties between Israel and Turkey as the success of Obama’s trip.
“The reconciliation between Israel and Turkey is a very important development that will help advance the cause of peace and stability in the region,” Kerry said in the statement.
Israeli military response in Syria
“As I discussed with Prime Minister Netanyahu this evening, this will help Israel meet the many challenges it faces in the region,” he said, a reference Iran’s nuclear program and Syria. “We look forward to an expeditious implementation of the agreement and the full normalization of relations so Israel and Turkey can work together to advance their common interests.”
On Sunday, the Israeli army fired a guided missile into Syria and destroyed a military post after gunfire flew across the border and struck an Israeli vehicle. Israel said it held President Bashar Assad’s military responsible regardless of whether Syrian troops had fired into the Golan Heights intentionally or it was a case of stray gunfire.
The shooting along the border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was one of the most serious incidents between the two countries since Syria’s civil war erupted two years ago.
Israel’s newly-appointed Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon promised to “immediately silence” any gunfire coming from Syria. “Every violation of Israeli sovereignty and shooting from the Syrian side will immediately be answered by silencing the source of fire,” Yaalon said in a statement.
Concerning Israel’s other preoccupation, its arch nemesis Iran, Obama did not pledge U.S. military action against the Islamic Republic, if Israel decided that must be undertaken. But the American president gave an explicit endorsement for Israel to take whatever unilateral measures it sees necessary to guard against the threat.
Obama wrapped up his tour with King Abdullah, calling Jordan an “invaluable ally” and pledged U.S. commitment to the country’s security, especially as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees continue to flood in.
Obama promised the king he would press Congress for additional funding of $200 million to shore up Jordan’s economy.
Abdullah said Jordan was committed to keeping its border open to Syrians fleeing the violence, despite the enormous strain it was putting on the oil-poor kingdom’s economy.
Jordan now hosts 460,000 refugees, he said. Those numbers would be the equivalent of 13 million refugees coming to the United States.
The king also said Jordan would like to play a leading role as a “facilitator” in seeing Israeli-Palestinian talks resume.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh said Sunday that he and other Arab states plan to visit Washington next month to revitalize an Arab peace initiative.
Initially proposed in 2002, the initiative offers Israel normalizing relations with all Arab states, in exchange for its complete withdrawal from the Occupied Territories (including East Jerusalem) and a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee crisis. Past Israeli governments have called the plan a “non-starter.”
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