Israeli election muddies Obama's waters
By M K Bhadrakumar
United States President Barack Obama's Middle East project took two impressive
steps forward during the week, but eventually got pushed back by almost one.
Obama made his most pronounced overture so far to Iran in his press conference
on Monday, and Tehran promptly grasped it within hours. But former Iranian
president Mohammad Khatami's decision to jump into the fray in the forthcoming
presidential election in June introduces complications in the highly
accident-prone US-Iranian enterprise.
Again this week, the Obama administration made a move towards Syria by
scheduling the visit of a congressional delegation led by
the powerful chairman of the US Senate's foreign relations committee, John
Kerry, to Damascus. Kerry's visit next week has been thoughtfully structured
during the interregnum between the first round of a regional tour of Israel and
pro-West Arab states by special envoy George Mitchell and his expected return
to the region later in the month.
But, alas, the results of the parliamentary election in Israel have in the
meanwhile begun coming in. They make any significant thawing of relations in
the near term between the US and Iran and Syria problematic indeed.
The flurry of diplomatic comments between Washington and Tehran this week
underscores that a thawing of relations may have already got underway. Obama
further built on his famous remark in his inauguration speech three weeks ago
that he was prepared to "extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your
fist". In his press conference on Monday, Obama specifically offered that he
was "looking at areas where we [US and Iran] can have constructive dialogue".
Renewing his call for direct dialogue with Iran, Obama said he hoped to create
conditions to "start sitting across the table, face-to-face" in the coming
months with "diplomatic overtures that will allow us to move our policy in the
Given the time difference between Washington and Tehran, it was extraordinary
that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad responded within hours, "Our nation
is ready to hold talks based on mutual respect and in a fair atmosphere." Some
timely backstage activity made this exchange possible. Obama sidestepped Vice
President Joseph Biden's warning - ably amplified by British Foreign Secretary
David Miliband - at the 45th Munich Security Conference that if Iran stayed on
its current path, sanctions would intensify. Tehran had amply made its
displeasure known about Biden's tough talk.
At any rate, Ahmadinejad chose the podium of the 30th anniversary celebrations
of the 1979 Iranian revolution on Tuesday to make his statement. It wasn't lost
on anyone, of course, that the revolution's anniversary this year, which was a
historic occasion, lacked any vitriolic outbursts against the "Great Satan" -
as some Iranians refer to the US.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swiftly picked up the threads with her
own statement on Wednesday that she was hopeful that the US and Iran would be
able to "work out a way of talking". And Clinton's Iranian counterpart wouldn't
As Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki put it, "We view positively the
slogan that Obama raised in the elections. The world has really changed. If the
American administration wants to keep up with the changes, this will be good
news ... We think these changes will provide excellent opportunities for the
American administration in its relations with the countries of the world ...
and we wish this would come true."
More importantly, Mottaki might have hinted in a roundabout Persian way that
Tehran would be prepared to work with Washington to stabilize the Afghanistan
situation - a priority for Obama - in the same pragmatic fashion in which the
two adversaries cooperated over Iraq.
A spoiler walks in
The party indeed was warming up rapidly, but then Khatami walked in. Khatami's
presidential ambitions, which he announced in Tehran on Monday - "Is it
possible to remain indifferent to the fate of the Islamic Revolution and shy
away from running in the elections?" - introduce a new angle to the US-Iranian
discourse. Actually, it is a 30-year-old angle - the US figuring as a
protagonist in the shadow boxing in Iran's vibrant politics.
It was only two years ago during his visit to the US that Khatami all but
juxtaposed himself in front of the American audience as the antithesis to
Ahmadinejad. He openly offered himself as a pragmatist with whom the US could
do business and as a political force though currently out of power. Khatami may
or may not pose a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad in the elections in June.
Ahmadinejad's populist agenda attracts the country's poor and Supreme Leader
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also favored him publicly.
But with his entry into the presidential race, an element of uncertainty creeps
in. One can never quite tell the outcome of Iranian elections. Khatami's
candidature is likely to pose a dilemma to the Obama administration. Is it
prudent for the US to initiate any diplomatic steps before it becomes clear who
the next Iranian president will be? Of course, Washington shouldn't contemplate
"influencing" the outcome of the Iranian election, as that could only have
catastrophic consequences and provoke a severe backlash.
At the same time, it is unwise to let the present buildup of momentum
dissipate. On balance, the best course might be to take baby steps towards
establishing a full-fledged dialogue. The good thing is that the Obama
administration also needs time to formulate its "grand strategy". But any
deliberate dragging of feet might also convey a wrong impression to Tehran,
which is all set to read meanings into any tiny US move or "non-move". It is
against this complex backdrop that the results of the Israeli parliamentary
elections on Wednesday come as a setback to Washington. An altogether new
dimension arises insofar as any delay in the US-Iranian dialogue may be
exploited by Israel to get Washington to adopt its tack.
Israel swings to the right
As things stand, the high probability is that former premier Benjamin Netanyahu
will take over as the next Israeli prime minister. Although his right-wing
Likud party came second to the centrist Kadima party led by Foreign Minister
Tzipi Livni, he expects to get the first crack at government formation thanks
to his ability to cobble together majority support in parliament.
The issue is what sort of coalition government Netanyahu would lead. Livni made
inroads into the left-wing base of Labor and Meretz in managing a last-minute
"surge", but the election results as such distinctly show a swing in favor of
the right-wing parties, which have bagged the majority of seats in the
Netanyahu has important choices to make. Will he make an exclusive right-wing
coalition government, which is perfectly feasible in terms of the numbers game,
but which is something he might also consciously spurn given the unsavory
prospect of becoming a captive of extreme right-wing forces? Or, will he opt
for a national unity government involving Kadima but which as well might erode
his rightist power base? Trying to decipher Israeli politicians putting
together their coalition governments is never an easy task, but this time it is
What is possible to be predicted is that over the situation around Iran, the
new right-wing Israeli government could find itself on a friction course with
the Obama administration from the outset. There is a fundamental departure of
interests on Iran between Washington and Jerusalem. Israel insists that a clash
with Iran is inevitable, despite Obama's robust diplomacy towards Tehran. And
to compound it, there is a near-unanimity in Israeli opinion regarding the
threat perception of Iran, so much so that there isn't any need felt to even
debate this topic.
Israel cannot realistically hope to stand in the way of the US's security
interests or torpedo a major project of Obama's foreign policy, but Israel has
a perception regarding Iran's inexorable march towards nuclear-weapon
capability that does not appear to be open to reasoning, and Israel no doubt
possesses the technical capability to hit Iran.
What further complicates the calculus is that the preponderance of right-wing
parties - 65 to 55 in the unofficial "right" versus "center" blocs - is likely
to go against any decisive US push on the new Israeli government to relaunch
negotiations for a Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli settlement.
Despite his election rhetoric - vowing not to divide Jerusalem, not to give up
the West bank, not to return the Golan Heights, etc - Netanyahu may not be the
problem for Obama, as he is wired into the US establishment and he would never
really contemplate jeopardizing American support. Besides, he is also a
mellowed man today after being long in the political wilderness, so much so
that some say he may even be susceptible to US pressure.
But more fundamentally, the stability of Israeli politics which traditionally
coalesced around two main parties - Likud and Labor - itself has been upset by
the emergence of third parties. This is a sure recipe for a wobbly coalition
government that may be focused on its survival rather than on peacemaking with
There are pressing issues to be addressed in the coming days and weeks, such as
indirect talks with Hamas for a Gaza ceasefire, Gaza's reconstruction, etc. But
the paradox is, as a former US peace negotiator, Aaron David Miller, told the
Washington Post, even a broad unity government would be unable to move on the
peace front but could be in a far better position to reach a consensus on
military strikes against Hamas or Hezbollah in Lebanon. "You may get a
[Israeli] government good at war-making, not peacemaking," he added.
In sum, Israelis have favored those political parties which promised to take on
not only Hamas but its Iranian sponsors as well, and are in no doubt that the
Iranian nuclear program's ultimate objective is to build a bomb and, therefore,
it poses an existential threat to Israel. On the other hand, the US cannot
afford to let the delicately poised dynamic of normalization of relations with
Iran or the Mitchell mission falter. Iran's cooperation is vital for the
success of the US's new Afghanistan strategy, which is a priority item on
Obama's foreign policy agenda, and the clock is ticking on the Iran nuclear
Middle Easterners are closely watching Mitchell's progress too, rooted in their
skepticism that the more things appear to change, the more they remain the
same. Above all, the credibility of the new US administration is at stake, and
any further erosion of the US's regional standing would weaken its capacity to
strike grand bargains with tough customers like Iran and Syria. Obama has some
real tightrope walking to do in reconciling Israel with his Middle East
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.