Mary Dejevsky: It worked in Moscow, but the Obama effect can be negative

In Israel, what was seen as a key omission raised huge suspicions
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Barack Obama has taken to the road, or rather the skies, again: Moscow, the G8 summit in Italy, a final leg in Ghana. And once again, the transformative power of this President is much in evidence. From something akin to a pariah state when George Bush left office, the US now luxuriates in global approval. What a difference one election and one individual can make.

But there are exceptions to the general euphoria – though the dissenters have kept a low profile. For the truth is that Obama's early initiatives have left some countries profoundly unsettled. Iran is one obvious example: how far did the return of a kinder gentler America cause Iranians to question years of orthodoxy about the Great Satan and vote accordingly? President Ahmadinejad once seemed loth to reject Obama's overtures, but now finds himself on the wrong side of events.

Then there is what the former US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, called "new Europe". Poles ejected their hard-line conservative government in time to realign themselves with the new realism of the Obama White House. Other governments, though, either side of the European Union's eastern border, are not adjusting well to a less ideological and less interventionist Washington.

Many are (discreetly) unhappy with Obama's determination to press the "reset button" with Russia. Moscow's gain, they fear, will be their loss. However loudly US and other EU diplomats deny this, and insist that a warmer US-Russia relationship will cast its benevolent glow on the region generally, they remain sceptical.

A return to nuclear arms talks and cuts in warheads – as agreed with much fanfare yesterday in Moscow – reminds them of the years when they were mere pawns in a bigger game, and the so-called superpowers negotiated over their heads. Obama was canny in selecting familiar arms control territory to tempt a prickly Russia to re-engage. But the signals such a rapprochement sends to East and Central Europe, while equally familiar, are less welcome.

The chilliest winds of all, though, are being felt in one of the last places anyone might expect: in Israel, long one of the staunchest of US allies, almost regardless of who occupies the White House. In his speech last month in Cairo, tailored primarily to a Muslim audience, Obama clearly took pains not to alienate Israel. He described bilateral relations as "an unbreakable bond", and traced the justification for Israel's existence to the experience of the Holocaust.

Care and continuity in his speech there may have been, but this is not how his words were heard. In many conversations in Israel last week, I found a new concern, not just about Obama's intentions, but more fundamentally about his loyalties. The misgivings spanned the political spectrum, and one point was raised time and again.

Why had Obama justified Israel's existence by the Holocaust, rather than the ancestral right of Jews to this land? That might seem a detail – it seemed so to me – but what was seen as a key omission had raised huge suspicions. Surely, people said, with a Jewish chief of staff and a Jewish speech-writer, Obama must have made the omission intentionally. In so doing, they said, he had played into the hands of those disputing Israel's right to exist.

From this emerged the sense of a more distant, less sympathetic US administration. They saw it as one that did not fully understand Israel's predicament and might, in pushing harder for concessions on settlements built in occupied territory, forfeit a peace agreement just when it seemed possible.

There are other ways of looking at this. Without persuading Arab countries that he understands the plight of the Palestinians, Obama risks making no progress at all. "Unbreakable" is a pretty strong word to use of the US commitment to Israel, while pushing Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hard on the settlements might – perversely – help him to bring round his even more conservative coalition partners.

It can also be argued that the greatest obstacles to agreement at present lie beyond either US or Israeli control: the weakness and divisions on the Palestinian side, and the uncertainty about Iran, which has sent everyone back to review their assumptions. But distrust is something Obama will have to address, in Israel, as in Eastern Europe. Rebuilding relations with inherited foes may be hard, but doing so without alienating old allies will be harder still.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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