There are three key issues that are important to clarify in terms of U.S.-Israel relations even before American President-Elect Barack Obama takes over the White House in January 2009.
The first involves an assumption, broadcast by some media outlets, that Israel's recent incursion into Gaza and subsequent clash with Hamas was an aggressive pre-emptive Israeli strike intended to upset an already fragile cease-fire.
The second involves an assumption that if Israel hands over the disputed Shaba Farms area on its northern border with Lebanon, and puts it under UN jurisdiction, that this will weaken Hezb'allah, politically and militarily, from carrying out its goal of creating a para-military state within the state of Lebanon.
The third involves an assumption that if there is a regime change in Iran by mid-2009, and current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad loses his power, this will stop Iran's intent of pursuing uranium enrichment towards the creation of a nuclear bomb, as well as towards the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the hands of state-sponsored terrorists.
It is important to clarify these three issues, especially the intentions of Hamas, Hezb'allah and Iran, as this ultimately affects U.S. policy toward Israel. Understanding these intentions alerts the international community to the real goals of rogue states and terror groups, so that people are not deceived when Obama pursues new diplomatic initiatives in hopes of affecting change towards a new world order.
Obama is expected to try and prove his capability, not only as the 44th President of the United States, but also in an active role as global leader. In his desire to show that the U.S. is going to be more cooperative in its relations with all nations; and, in his pursuit of freedom, peace, and good will toward all men, he could overlook important differences in the clash of civilizations. He must get beyond the temptation to believe in diplomatic promises from rogue leaders and watch, instead, for the intricate maneuvers and deceptive agendas of radical Islamists.
Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority
Renewed violence has already begun between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, and could be expanded into the West Bank. A new war between Israel and Hamas is inevitable as long as Hamas continues to build tunnels and smuggle weapons into the Gaza Strip. The IDF's (Israel's Defense Forces) recent discovery of an underground tunnel was subsequently destroyed before Hamas could use it for terrorist activities such as the potential kidnapping of Israeli soldiers. The barrage of rockets that Hamas then launched against Israeli border towns in the Negev and Ashkelon, points to the possibility of a quick end to the current cease-fire before its formal conclusion in December 2008.
Clearly, it was not Israeli aggression that threatened the cease-fire, but developments by Hamas that threatened the security of Israel, which government officials had to address militarily.
The IDF's offensive moves against Hamas may be misunderstood by a new U.S. administration that cannot comprehend Israel's need to launch incursions into Gaza in order to stop Hamas from continuing its extensive military build-up. Furthermore, the U.S. may want Israel to renew the cease-fire in January 2009 in order to maintain calm while the American government goes through its transitional stage.
Meanwhile, the future Obama Administration, with Israel's tacit approval, may look to build-up Palestinian Authority forces in the West Bank in order to counteract Hamas' military and political ambitions there. But, this type of U.S. policy could backfire, especially if Hamas and Fatah unite and build a new political and military force that undermines American and Israeli interests in the area.
The Egyptian government is pressing Hamas and Fatah to resolve their differences in a reconciliation conference due to take place this month. If successful, the international community will have to decide who to do business with in a newly formed Palestinian Authority, which includes terrorist elements intent on refusing to recognize the state of Israel and continually fighting for its destruction.
Striving For a Comprehensive Peace Deal -- a good idea or not?
With no peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the foreseeable future, Obama, in his world view to reach out to all nations, may focus on the concept of a regional peace agreement, instead. This would be a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world, and would include the Palestinians.
Arab states have already indicated that they would welcome this, and in recent weeks, have revived the Arab Peace Initiative introduced in 2002 by Saudi Arabia's then-Crown Prince King Abdullah. This initiative is supported by Israel's President Shimon Peres, but has been a source of concern for most of Israel's other government leaders, as well as for a majority of Israeli citizens.
The Arab Peace Initiative demands a complete return of land to pre-1967 borders including a withdrawal from all Jewish settlements in the West Bank; a return of the Golan Heights to Syria; a division of Jerusalem and shared Israeli-Palestinian control of the city; and provision for tens of thousands of so-called Palestinian "refugees" to occupy homes in Israel. Furthermore, the Arab nations supporting this proposal say there is no room for negotiations on this comprehensive peace deal. Many in Israel say there is no room in this proposal for Israel to have defensible borders. Furthermore, they believe the Arab agenda threatens the security of the state of Israel, as well as a sustainable Jewish majority within the population, especially if so many Palestinian "refugees" are allowed to live in Israel.
Hezb'allah in Lebanon and Syrian Intentions
Syria has moved 3,000 troops to the Lebanese border, and continues to support insurgent and para-military groups in neighboring countries. Syria may be exploiting this period of transition in America and Israel in order to reassert its influence in Lebanon, politically and militarily.
Already, Syrian President Bashar Assad has extended his hand of welcome to the new U.S. President-Elect. Obama will have the power to bring Assad out of isolation, and set him in place as a regional player. In addition, Obama will have the choice of mediating between Israeli and Syrian interlocutors for a peace deal. But, a new Israeli leader emerging from general elections on February 10, 2009 may not want to continue negotiations with Syria because a majority of Israelis do not want to give up the Golan Heights, which is Syria's main demand for peace.
In addition, there could be pressure from the U.S. for Israel to withdraw from the disputed Shaba Farms area, with demands to put it under UN jurisdiction. However, despite what U.S. and other western leaders assume, this will not stop Hezb'allah from reaching its political and military goals. The terrorist group now says it will not accept the UN-demarcated Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel. Hezb'allah has recently laid claim to seven supposedly "Shiite" villages in the Upper Galilee inside northern Israel. Hezb'allah will continue to fight over territory with Israel in order to have political relevance inside Lebanon.
Hezb'allah may also use this transitional period in the U.S. and Israel to try and kidnap Israeli soldiers on Israel's northern border in order to revenge the murder last year of the group's arch-terrorist leader Imad Muginyeh. This could spark another war between Hezb'allah and Israel upsetting new U.S. foreign policy advances in the region.
Iran -- The Clock Is Ticking
Estimates are that Iran could have enough uranium enriched by 2009 in order to create its first nuclear bomb. Obama made it clear in July 2008, when he visited Israel that his administration would engage in tough direct talks with Iran, while leaving all options on the table if diplomacy fails. Obama also claimed that the Iranian issue would be elevated to the top of his national security priorities. He wants to mobilize the international community on this issue, including Russia and China. This confirms his expected influence as a global leader in this volatile Middle East region.
However, part of the international community involves Sunni-dominated Arab states like Saudi Arabia. The Saudi's have no love for Shiite Iran, but so far, they have also not supported the U.S. in isolating the Persian state. While the Saudi's and other Arab leaders in the region fear Iran becoming a nuclear force to contend with, at the same time, they want to work out their own carrot-stick approach vis-à-vis Iran. This might mean continuing to deal with Iran on a business level while refusing to allow Iran to get more aggressive in land disputes near the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf.
Meanwhile, the new U.S. administration might try and make a deal with Arab states that would involve accepting the Arab Peace Initiative in return for Arab compliance with U.S. intentions towards Iran.
Some policymakers feel Obama should wait until June 2009 before confronting Iranian officials in direct talks. This is when the country will go through presidential elections and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is unpopular in Iran, could lose his presidential seat of power. Obama's Administration will likely try to engage in diplomacy with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, and look to silence Ahmadinejad's threats toward Israel.
But, the international community could presume that an Iran without Ahmadinejad at the helm of power would constitute an Iran that stops its pursuit of nuclear weapons. Middle East experts say that's a false assumption. While Khameni may promise Obama and other international leaders that he will not use nuclear weapons on Israel or western forces, most analysts claim he is among several Iranian leaders pushing for nuclear capability.
Israel is aware of this and sees any future diplomatic compromise on the part of the U.S. and its European and Arab allies as detrimental to Israel's security. This could be an issue that pits a future Obama Administration against a future Israeli Administration.
A Slow Process
While these Middle East issues are central to solidifying the new U.S.-Israel relationship, for the next six months we can expect that Obama will be busily engaged in forming his new government. He will be pushing forward his domestic agenda to solve the current U.S. financial crisis. Israel will not be at the top of his agenda while he is focused on getting troops out of Iraq as quickly as possible, in addition to fortifying troops in Afghanistan. Most likely, Obama will be meeting with global financial leaders and his European and Arab allies before he sets his face towards Jerusalem.
This will give Israel the needed time it needs to set its own agenda and deal with these complex issues, as a new Prime Minister tries to form a new coalition government in Jerusalem in the coming months.
C Hart is a news analyst reporting on political, diplomatic, and military issues as they relate to Israel, the Middle East and the international community.