Analysis: Bridges to build at Netanyahu-Obama summit

With the 2016 US elections looming, the leaders of Israel and the US both gain from friendly talks this week.

    Analysis: Bridges to build at Netanyahu-Obama summit
    Relations between the two leaders have remained strained over disagreements about Iran and Israel's expansion of settlements [AP Photo/Ariel Schalit]

    The last time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, he sided with Republicans and blasted US President Barack Obama's nuclear deal with Iran as a disaster.

    When he returns to the US capital on Monday, the two leaders will try to sweep that aside and focus on a multibillion-dollar US-Israeli arms deal while avoiding fresh spats over a wave of violence between Palestinians and Israelis, analysts told Al Jazeera.

    "No breakdowns or breakthroughs in the US-Israel relationship are likely this week," Aaron Miller, a former state department adviser, told Al Jazeera.

    "The row over Iran is essentially over, peace with the Palestinians is as elusive as ever and the next US presidential election approaches. No transformational reset looms between the two leaders; but Obama and Netanyahu have more reasons to get along these days than not."

    The two men have notoriously strained relations. They worsened when Netanyahu courted Republicans and addressed the US Congress in March, saying Obama's deal threatened Israeli security by paving the way for a nuclear-armed Iran.

    In September, Republicans failed to halt the agreement, which trades sanctions relief on Tehran for curbs on the country's nuclear programme.

    New defence deal

    Dan Shapiro, the US envoy to Israel, said talks would be "looking forward" and aimed at calming tensions. The leaders will discuss new arms spending to ease Israel's fears that a wealthier Iran might boost support to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

    A new 10-year defence deal is expected to replace the current accord that expires in 2017. It will not be finalised this week, but may feature an increase in the more than $3bn in US military aid that Israel receives each year.

    Netanyahu knows full well what virtually the entire Israeli defence and security establishment does: all things considered, the Iran deal is a good one for Israel strategically.

     Marc Sirois, independent analyst

    Talks may also cover the US-funded Iron Dome missile defence shield and pledges that Israel will receive more than the 33 stealth F-35 fighters already ordered, precision munitions and a chance to buy V-22 Ospreys and other hardware.

    "Netanyahu knows full well what virtually the entire Israeli defence and security establishment does: all things considered, the Iran deal is a good one for Israel strategically," said Marc Sirois, an independent analyst.

    "All he's doing now is negotiating the price of a begrudging acquiescence."

    Backdrop of violence

    The summit comes against a backdrop of violence in Israel.

    Triggered last September by Israeli incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, protests against Israel's ongoing occupation have given way to a spike in violence in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

    Israeli forces have used tear gas, stun grenades, rubber-coated bullets and live ammunition against demonstrators, including children.

    Since October 1, Israeli army and police have killed at least 77 Palestinians - among them alleged attackers, unarmed protesters and bystanders - while a series of Palestinian attacks have left 10 Israelis dead. 

    In the past, Obama criticised Netanyahu for building settlements in the West Bank and hurting plans for Palestinian autonomy. Meanwhile, last week, Ben Rhodes, the US deputy national security adviser, said there was no "clear pathway" towards a two-state solution.

    With slim chances of an accord between Israelis and Palestinians before Obama leaves office in January 2017, he is not likely to challenge Netanyahu now, Neri Zilber, an analyst at The Washington Institute think-tank, told Al Jazeera.

    "Why would Obama pick a fight with Netanyahu on the peace process when it's not likely to move the ball very far down the field?" asked Zilber.

    "If you take the long historical view, relations are still pretty healthy and Israel remains Washington's most reliable ally in the region."

    Before Netanyahu headed to the US, tensions arose over his appointment of a new spokesman, Ran Baratz. Israeli journalists dug up old comments from Baratz accusing Obama of anti-Semitism and saying US Secretary of State John Kerry's "mental age" was no older than 12.

    Netanyahu rejected the statements and said he would meet Baratz once back in Israel.

    "The appointment showed where Netanyahu's heart lies," Seth Morrison, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, a US-based activist group, told Al Jazeera.

    "Given Israel's world-class intelligence apparatus, one must conclude that he vetted somebody with such a vital role, knew his background and, once again, underestimated US concerns about Israel's behaviour."

    In the US, Netanyahu will meet lawmakers, receive an award from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and also speak at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think-tank. He is due back in Israel on Thursday.

    According to Zilber, he will try to win back Democrats after the Iran row.

    Netanyahu knows he will have a better relationship with the next president than with Obama, and likely sees the 2016 election as a source of relief rather than anxiety.

    Jonathan Cristol, analyst, Wold Policy Institute

    "He'll try to sweep these differences aside when he speaks at the liberal Center for American Progress. The Democrats want to keep the White House in 2016, they don't want to look weak on guaranteeing Israeli security now," said Zilber.

    Last week, Hillary Clinton, one of the main Democratic contenders, wrote of the US' "unbreakable bonds" with Israel.

    "Netanyahu knows he will have a better relationship with the next president than with Obama, and likely sees the 2016 election as a source of relief rather than anxiety," said Jonathan Cristol, an analyst at the World Policy Institute, a US-based think-tank.

    But Nitin Sawhney, a scholar at The New School, said Israelis may pay a price for Netanyahu's divisive acts.

    "More Americans see through Netanyahu's rhetoric and younger voters, including Jewish ones, are drifting away from him," Sawhney told Al Jazeera. "The pro-Israel lobby lost much influence because of the Iran deal; we are at a point where the US-Israel relationship could be redefined."

    Russia's entry 

    Netanyahu's visit also occurs against the backdrop of a four-year war in Syria, and a recent Russian deployment there of some 4,000 personnel at four bases to bolster President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is fighting multiple rebel groups.

    Obama and Netanyahu will discuss a brutal conflict that Moscow has nudged in Assad's favour, Vijay Prashad, a scholar at Trinity College, Connecticut, told Al Jazeera.

    "There is now a major Russian force on the flight path between Israel and Iran, and Israel must contend with this new reality," said Prashad. "Russia's entry to the region and Iranian confidence have opened a new period in west Asia that is difficult to define."

    For Cristol, Israel benefits from regional tensions.

    "The Iran deal has taken some pressure off Israel over the peace process," he said.

    "Not from the US, but from the Gulf Arabs. Israel has always had tense relations with its Arab neighbours, but shared concerns over Iran's nuclear programme have pushed Israel and the Gulf states closer together."

    Others describe a changing geopolitical landscape that works against Israel.

    "Netanyahu could previously use Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government as a hardline bulwark to discredit Obama, but the liberals who now run Ottawa talk of reform and new allies in the Middle East," said Sawhney.

    "Russia is back in the region and France is trying to play a role; the Palestinian question is moving away from a US-Israel issue to a multilateral concern."

    Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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