BY SAEED NAQVI
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu requires astrological consultations, preferably in Varanasi, to free him from an unfortunate conjunction of stars. President Obama’s blueprint for Middle East could not have come at a worse moment. Bibi was planning a virtuoso performance before a joint session of US Congress.
It is commonly recognized in Jerusalem, and elsewhere, that the Likud PM nurses an adversarial chemistry with the US President. He went ahead with jewish settlements in a most insulting reception to US Vice President, Joe Biden. That was precisely what Biden had come to prevent.
Pushed to a corner and isolated, who can blame Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas endorse a resolution to be placed before the United Nations General Assembly in September to recognize the state of Palestine.
Just as Netanyahu’s men set about plotting their move, the Arab Spring knocked out the interlocutor Israel had grown accustomed to – Mubarak. This strengthened the Israeli lobby which argued: “who do we discuss peace with; what will be the face of the emerging Mid East?” Obama comes down firmly on this stance.
“I disagree” he says. “At a time when people of the Middle East are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace……..is more urgent than ever.” The status quo, he said, is simply “not sustainable”.
Why is the timing of Obama’s speech embarrassing for Netanyahu? As I have said, the Arab Spring took Israel by surprise. Poor anticipation exposed poor intelligence. To escape constant nagging by Senator George Mitchell, Netanyahu’s friends in Washington fetched for him an invitation to address a joint session of Congress in May.
The PM’s men fell into deep thought. Should the speech invite Mahmoud Abbas as a partner in quest for peace, or announce a peace plan?
Just then came the biggest shock of all. Again, Israeli intelligence knew nothing about Palestinian interlocutor Mustafa Barghouti shuttling between Ramallah, Damascus and Cairo, arranging meetings in Cairo between Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, all under the new Egyptian Intelligence chief, Mourad Mowafi and Foreign Minister Nabil al Araby.
Egypt was once again center-stage, playing its role as Arab leader. This is most disconcerting for an Israel used to dealing with a rubber stamp despot for over three decades.
With circumstances so altered, what will Netanyahu say on the Capitol Hill on May 24? Of course, he will go hammer and tongs on Iran’s nuclear ambition. But that may not be enough to keep the Congressman riveted.
Before the PM’s team could produce that magical speech, President Obama, looking good after concluding the Osama bin Laden saga, took the wind out of their sails with his speech. It is the most comprehensive speech yet made by any world leader on the theme.
There is a degree of thoroughness in the manner in which this speech of Obama’s has been prepared. Not only is there fulsome praise for Hillary Clinton who “will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history” but there is an imprimatur of professional diplomacy throughout the speech.
For instance a somewhat tired Senator George Mitchell has been replaced by young David Hale as Mid East Envoy. He has first hand knowledge of almost every Mid East station mentioned by Obama, including Bahrain.
In an all important paragraph on Bahrain, Obama chastises those responsible for “mass arrests and brute force.” The leadership in Manamah would know exactly where the President’s barbs are directed.
One spots US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman’s hand in this paragraph. Feltman had painstakingly helped draft a six point power sharing agreement to which Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Khalifa and Moderate Shia leader Shaikh Ali Salman committed themselves. Much to Feltman’s disappointment, the Prince’s uncle (King’s brother) Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman al Khalifa and his coterie of hardliners, scuttled the agreement. It was then that Saudi armoured Personal Carriers rolled in.
Obama mentioned reforms in Bahrain and Yemen as being important for “America to be credible”. In which case Bahrain may have to pick up the thread where Feltman left it.
Since Obama names almost every Arab country which is reforming or needs reform, the omission of Riyadh places Saudis beyond all critical examination as the perfect society, Peace Be Upon It!
Incidentally two important West Asian countries have watched the Arab spring with doubt, even some anxiety –Saudi Arabia and Israel. To the extent that both are fearful of Iran, a sort of unstated common purpose binds them. Since Jerusalem and Riyadh have clout in Washington far in excess of anything that all the Arab countries can jointly claim, there is in place a very powerful troika.
The troika would have been even more imposing had the Libyan misadventure not created a rift in the Atlantic alliance on whether the group in Benghazi should be recognized as the legitimate government of Libya. David Cameron, the latter day, would-be Winston Churchill, rushes in where Obama fears to tread.
There is another aspect which worries Riyadh as much as it worries Jerusalem: New Egypt’s approach to Iran. For Egypt, Hamas and Hezbullah are of greater concern than meditations on Iran’s nuclear ambition.
Demonstrations in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain all the way around to Yemen has produced paranoia in Riyadh about an encirclement by Shias who will, they fear, eventually have Iranian support.
(Saeed Naqvi is senior Indian journalist, television commentator, interviewer, and a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. Mr. Naqvi is also a mentor and a guest blogger with Canary Trap)