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Patrick Martin, The Globe's Middle East correspondent (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Patrick Martin, The Globe's Middle East correspondent (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Globe Essay

America's new position: Lean on Israel Add to ...

The U.S. president's message could not have been clearer.

"The time has come for a new realism on the part of all the peoples of the Middle East," he said, announcing a new U.S. initiative in Middle East policy.

"The United States will not support the use of any additional land for the purpose of settlements … Indeed, the immediate adoption of a settlement freeze by Israel, more than any other action, could create the confidence needed for wider participation in [peace]talks. Further settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated."

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"I want to make the American position well understood," he said. "The purpose of this [initiative]is the peaceful and orderly transfer of authority from Israel to the Palestinian inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza."

Was that Barack Obama, speaking yesterday?

No. It was Ronald Reagan, speaking on Sept. 1, 1982.

Efforts to instill a "new realism" in U.S. Middle East policy are not new, but they are bobbing up once again. When Mr. Obama declared last week at a press conference that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict was a "vital national security interest of the United States," he was signalling a shift in policy. That's according to administration officials who conveniently underscored those few words for reporters.

In short, the policy is this: With American lives on the line in Iraq and grave concerns about Iran's nuclear agenda, the United States has national security interests in the Middle East that trump its support for Israel. The implication of the policy is formidable: Israel can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

This shift already had been articulated by General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command. In written testimony to the Senate's armed services committee last month, the four-star general said the Arab-Israeli conflict makes it difficult "to advance our interests" in the Middle East.

"The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favouritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR [area of responsibility]and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world," he wrote, adding that "the conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas."

And if that wasn't clear enough, it was stated baldly this week by Martin Indyk, a two-time U.S. ambassador to Israel and a long-time friend to the Jewish state, who said the change "seems to have gone unnoticed in Jerusalem."

In a New York Times commentary on Tuesday, Israel's Independence Day, Mr. Indyk wrote that "the shift in America's Middle East interests means that [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin]Netanyahu must make a choice: Take on the President of the United States, or take on his [own]right wing."

"If he continues to defer to those ministers in his cabinet who oppose peacemaking," Mr. Indyk concluded, "the consequences for U.S.-Israel relations could be dire."

Mr. Obama didn't just wake up one morning and decide to throw this bucket of cold water on Israel. It's been a long time coming, since before the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Reagan, the first president to identify Israel as a strategic ally, began to sculpt this idea. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton chipped away at it too. It was Mr. Bush who launched the first Persian Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 and linked it to the Middle East peace conference in Madrid later the same year. Mr. Clinton, president during the Oslo peace process, went so far as to articulate parameters for the sides to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

More recently, the bipartisan Iraq Study Group of 2006 noted what it described as the linkage between making progress in an Arab-Israeli peace process and U.S. success in emerging from Iraq. (Leon Panetta, one of the members of that group, now is Mr. Obama's CIA director.) Even during George W. Bush's administration, viewed by Israelis as the most favourable ever, secretary of state Condoleezza Rice declared in Jerusalem three years ago that U.S. "strategic interests" were at stake in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is a change in U.S. policy, and it's important in two ways: Although they may coincide, Israeli interests are not assumed be U.S. interests, and major tensions in the region often are linked.

So what comes now?

Many suggest the United States should use the leverage it has to impose its own peace plan on the parties. "We all know what the final deal will look like," these people say. "Let's get on with it, so our broader interests don't suffer."

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