Obama's tough love for Israel

The pressure is beginning to build on the fragile Israeli government to show some openness regarding settlements (legal or otherwise). Some Israeli polls show a more moderate stance from the population than has been expressed by the prime minister and Foreign Minister Lieberman. Meanwhile, U.S. public opinion appears to be appreciative of Obama’s approach, which has made peace in the Middle East a priority in the early stages of his presidency. This is a risky move by the Obama Administration, but it indicates that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu will have to show flexibility or else some tough love may be on the way. Netanyahu’s speech next week could therefore set the tone for future talks.

It is understandable that the Israeli government is going to be concerned about its neighbours, especially Iran given its nuclear ambitions. But the American public was introduced to a new and emerging Iran on NBC’s Dateline, where the presidential race appears to be tighter than most had expected it to be a few months ago and where women and the youth are playing a more prominent role. No doubt, as it has been noted by prominent observers like Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, that Iran is slowly abandoning its strident anti-American attitudes, which has its origins with the repulsive regime of the American-backed Shah of Iran and the U.S. support of an attempted invasion by Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. Expect old traditional rhetoric from Netanyahu to be challenged in America if there is a feeling that Obama has succeeded in reframing the debate.

Judging from the Sunday news shows and some accounts in the Arab media, President Obama was able to convey a change of attitude by the American government during his trip to Cairo. The words apparently did matter and Obama’s attempt to touch various aspects of the Muslim world may have already begun to resonate. The seemingly pro-western alliance led by Said Hariri has won Lebanon’s parliamentary elections against expectations. It is too early to attribute the results to Obama’s speech, but it certainly did not hurt. And on June 12, Iranians will head to the polls to end a close race that may cost President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad his job. Should the moderate Mir Hosein Mousavi win, a new dynamic will begin to surface in the Arab world. Syria, too, has sent encouraging signals that it may be open to a new dialogue.

It’s widely agreed that Obama must follow up with deeds that go significantly beyond the rhetoric. Obama has made it clear that he is committed to a two-state solution, but Israel and Palestine must each make some major concessions. So must Iran and Syria, two key players in any long lasting peace scenario. The odds are already stacked against progress and success in a part of the world where religion and politics intersect against a background of mistrust, violence and self-interest. Obama is a realist, but you can be sure that he will not hesitate to use tough love even against his closest ally, Israel, if an opening for a lasting peace occurs. To do otherwise will be a recipe for failure .

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