Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


APRIL 2010

President Obama's foreign policy team encountered last month a new and frustrating challenge in its dealings with three allies, Afghanistan, Japan, and Israel, which voiced opposition to U.S. policies on serious national security matters.

Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai charged that the "West," meaning the United States, interfered in last summer's elections and is trying to turn him into a "puppet government." He told tribal leaders in Kandahar last week that an impending U.S. military offensive would not start without his agreement. He threatens to join the Taliban if the United States doesn't stop badgering him about curbing corruption.

U.S. commanders in Afghanistan report that their operations to crush the Taliban insurgency will not succeed unless Karzai curbs the rampant corruption that pervades provincial government in Kandahar. A Financial Times' story April 5 clearly stated the issue: "Anger in the West as Karzai bites the hand that feeds him." Last week, the White House spokesman suggested that Karzai's visit to Washington in May might be canceled. Japan's new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, decided to shelve an agreement, negotiated by the previous government with Washington, to move a U.S. Marine airbase on Okinawa to a new location. Hatoyama further suggests that his government wants to review the long-established security relationship between Japan and the United States. The Pentagon and State Department expressed serious concern about these developments.

Perhaps the most striking example of a recalcitrant ally is Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama's public clash with him over policy centers on Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine, specifically in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman stated the issue bluntly following Israel's poor treatment of Vice President Biden during his visit to Jerusalem last month. "Bibi Netanyahu's government rubbed his nose in some new housing plans for contested East Jerusalem." Friedman suggested that Biden should have left Israel immediately and sent the prime minister this message: "Friends don't let friends drive drunk. And right now you're driving drunk." (New York Times , Mar. 14)

How serious is this dispute? Is it simply a disagreement between friends, as some claim, or a more fundamental clash of America's and Israel's vital national interests?

This clearly is more than a disagreement; whether it turns into a crisis depends on how Netanyahu responds to Obama's demand last month that he cancel building plans in East Jerusalem and move toward a final peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority. A Netanyahu visit to the White House in mid-March did not resolve the dispute.

At stake is a wide gulf between the prime minister's view of Israel's security interests and Obama's view of America's strategic interests in the entire Middle East.

The president strongly believes that a Palestinian homeland is vital for U.S. policies across Asia, not just in Arab states but in the Muslim countries stretching across a vast continent, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

But Netanyahu's government shows little interest in improving relations with the Arab countries, if the price is accepting a sovereign Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem. He is far more concerned about confronting Iran over its nuclear weapons program, and he wants Obama to remove that dangerous threat to his country.

The future of East Jerusalem is the major impediment to the two leaders' continuing dispute, which may soon be headed toward a showdown. Although Israel annexed this area after the 1967 war, neither the United States nor any other country accepts this situation and continues to view East Jerusalem as "occupied territory."

One of two outcomes to this dispute is likely. The first scenario has Obama moderating his tough stance, conveyed to Netanyahu by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a reported "blistering" phone call on March 12, and agreeing to a compromise that requires Israel to suspend building in East Jerusalem while leaving open its future status. Netanyahu then agrees to negotiate a final status agreement with the Palestinian Authority, which is facilitated by the United States, European Union, and Russia.

A second scenario has Obama holding firm to his demand that Netanyahu cancel building plans in East Jerusalem and accept the U.S. view that it will become the capital of a new, demilitarized, Palestinian state. If, however, Netanyahu accepts this formula, his cabinet will collapse because members of the ultra-religious parties will reject it.

The stakes for Israel are large. Obama's view of a peace agreement requires it to abandon the dream of many Israelis that their homeland will forever include the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But if Netanyahu accepts Obama's plan, he would win firm guarantees of Israel's security from the United States, Europe, and Russia. Diplomatic relations with all Arab countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia would also follow.

The stakes are equally large for the United States. Its continuing struggle against Muslim-inspired terrorism across Central Asia, plus a looming confrontation with Iran's Islamic regime, has been severely hampered by Israel's unwillingness to accept a viable Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Peace in the Middle East now largely hinges on whether Obama and Netanyahu can bridge this serious divergence of their policies.

File last modified on Sunday, 28-MAR-2010 4:56 PM EST

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