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OBAMA'S AGENDA: Getting right with Israel

Date: 26.11.08

Of all the foreign policy issues confronting President Barack Obama, one of the most challenging will be how to deal with Israel. Will the new president maintain a special relationship with Israel (which serves American interests) or permit that relationship to continue to be exclusive (which doesn't)?

The answer may well determine how successful the United States will be in Arab-Israeli peacemaking and in protecting its interests in the Middle East.

America has a special relationship with the state of Israel which is not likely to change. Sixty years on, that bond remains more resilient than ever, nurtured by a powerful pro-Israeli community that has made Israel a survival issue.

Israel figures prominently in the mind of America, in its politics, culture and foreign policy. For millions of Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, a strong tie with Israel, driven by shared values, sympathy for Jewish victims of historic anti-Semitism and support for Israel's perilous security predicament, has become an integral part of the American story.

But President Obama will inherit more than just a special relationship that is good for American interests and values. He will also inherit an exclusive relationship with Israel that is not.

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Eight years is more than enoughBlackberry vs. the bubbleBring back the woolly mammoth?Over the past 16 years (eight under Bill Clinton and eight under George W. Bush), we have, perhaps with the best of intentions, allowed our relationship with Israel to get out of whack and out of balance. This has hurt America credibility, particularly in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, and Israeli interests.

Several factors drive this exclusiveness. First is our tendency to let the Israelis have too much influence over our tactics and strategy when it comes to Arab-Israeli peacemaking. What I call the "Jewish lobby of one" - the impact that a compelling Israeli prime minister can have on an American president - can be decisive.

Whether it was Ehud Barak's success in convincing Clinton to go for a make-or-break Camp David summit or Ariel Sharon's campaign to persuade Bush to do the road map his way, we seem to be unable to say no to bad Israeli ideas.

Close coordination with Israelis on matters vital to their security is one thing. Allowing the Israelis to hijack American peacemaking and undermine our credibility is another matter. Far too often we end up being Israel's lawyer and not an advocate for both sides in a negotiation.

The other element in our exclusive relationship is our refusal to call the Israelis on behavior that undermines the very negotiating process we're trying to promote. Actually we're an equal opportunity employer on this one since over the years we've not been tough enough with the other side - Palestinians and Syrians -  either.

Still, on settlement activity, bypass roads or land confiscation, we've given the Israelis a pass now for at least 16 years, imposed no accountability or transparency on policies that have nothing to do with Israeli security needs.

That we don't want to sanction the Israelis is understandable; they're a close ally. But we should make it unmistakably clear that we won't lend our authority or auspices to any peacemaking process in which Israeli or Palestinian behavior undermines it and destroys American credibility at the same time.

If Obama wants to have any chance of succeeding in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, he needs to get right with Israel. He needs to reassure Israel, a small country living in a dangerous neighborhood. But he also needs to be tough and tenacious in guarding America's role as an independent and fair mediator.

No one will plant a tree in his honor if he succeeds in brokering a peace agreement. Just ask Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter or James Baker. But he'll have done something quite remarkable for America - and in the process, despite the moans, for Israel as well.

Aaron David Miller advised Democratic and Republican U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations. He is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.