One benefit of President Obama cancelling his trip to Indonesia for the Health Reform vote, said a Senator in Washington this week, was that it enabled him to see Benjamin Netanyahu on his visit to the US capital. Well, if that was the bonus, it didn't seem to achieve much. Agreement to disagree is the polite phrase for a meeting that ended in a frozen silence.
The aborted trip didn't receive much publicity. It should have. Indonesia would have been a far better place to go for an American President determined on a new relationship with the Islamic world than staying at home to meet an obdurate Israeli Prime Minister.
The country is the largest Muslim nation in the world. Troubled it certainly remains, with continued problems (and a bitter legacy) of relations with Timor and Aceh. But it is also a country developing democracy after two generations of authoritarian rule and has, in the past few years, produced some of the most interesting thinking on contemporary Islam in Asia.
That cannot compete, of course, with the paramount imperatives of Israel. It is not only that Israel is America's closest ally (far closer than the UK), nor only that it is the source of the greatest tensions between the West and the Arab world. It is also a country that makes it a policy to ensure that it does remain at the forefront of the West's concerns. Of all things Israel fears in its relations with the West, the greatest fear must be marginalisation.
Yet, after the stand-off over settlement building in East Jerusalem between the US and Israel, and after the latest spat between the UK and Israel over the cloned passports, it is surely time to ask whether it should be allowed to dominate the agenda to the extent it does, let alone determine so much of western policy.
Israel's interests are not difficult to define. For it, the name of the game has to be security and that security has always been defined as maintaining a total military dominance in the region and keeping the Palestinians weak and divided nearby.
Iran has to be faced down because Tehran threatens its military hegemony. Nor is there any mystery as to why Israel should prove so difficult about the settlements and the status of Jerusalem. Facts on the ground are what counts for security. A prosperous and self-confident Palestinian state represents a potential threat. Hence the Israeli government's obsessions with process in peace talks, the policies of state assassination to lop off any leadership the Palestinians might develop, the regular clampdowns and military forays into Gaza and the West Bank. Israel's interest, according to the view of all but a minority on the left in the country, lie in a future despite the Middle East not as part of it.
That requires the constant humiliation of the Arabs (not that many of them, with their corrupt and authoritarian regimes, don't do quite enough of this for themselves). And it also demands that the West sign up to the Israeli view of a world in which their survival is not only always at imminent risk but is also essential to the West's interests.
But is it? The real importance of Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington, and his uncompromising speech there, is not that it threatens the US-Israeli relations (it doesn't – no US President would be willing to sanction a real break) but that it does very directly challenge America and Europe's interests more broadly in the Muslim world, including its soldiers in Afghanistan (as General Petraeus has now pointed out) and its competition with China for raw materials in the Middle East and Africa (including in Iran).
Much has been made of the snub – intentional or not – to the US delivered by the announcement of new settlement building in East Jerusalem just as the Vice President, Joe Biden, arrived on a visit to Israel this month. But the far greater snub was to the Arab League, which had helped push the reluctant Palestinian Authority to agree to third-party talks. And it was a smack in the face, too, to the much put-upon Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who was under intense pressure from his own constituency to cease all relations with Israel so long as settlements were being expanded.
Washington, far more than Jerusalem, is desperate for peace talks be conducted, for the sake of appearances as much as anything else. But in pursuing them, it is only adding to the humiliation of its Arab allies and the hatred in which it is held in the Arab street.
In the end the US will let Israel go its own way. It won't, and probably can't, stop it. And peace talks, as Prime Minister Netanyahu has warned (not without a hint of satisfaction), will be played into the long grass. But maybe in this week of spats in Washington and London, we are seeing the first glimmering of understanding that Israel has its interests and we have ours and that the two are not necessarily the same.Reuse content