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Patrick Martin, The Globe's Middle East correspondent

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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."

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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.

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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."

Such an approach, however, would almost certainly be counterproductive.

It would raise the ire of Israel's right wing, which would dig in deeper in the occupied territories, and it would breed resentment among most Israelis. No government would feel it had the mandate to assuage those positions.

It also would trouble Palestinians, who still would suspect that Washington was biased in favour of Israel, and would likely activate armed resistance against the occupation, compounding the conflict.

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Just ask the supporters of the Reagan plan and subsequent initiatives what happened to those efforts.

"The history of recent decades proves that just because a peace plan is presidential, it does not have the necessary shock effect to cause the parties to alter their positions," said Yossi Beilin, a former Israeli cabinet minister and chairman of the peace-seeking Geneva Initiative.

Writing this week in, Mr. Beilin said, "What the parties need right now is a process," not a plan - something such as the Madrid conference to facilitate discussion.

"If Obama issues the invitation, the parties will have to come. But the substance should be left to them," he insists.

But even a process will have its constraints.

It's not just Mr. Netanyahu's administration that balks at making concessions asked of it by the United States. As Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, points out, "The ruling coalition reflects a reshaping of Israeli society."

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There are several trends responsible for that reshaping: the considerable growth of Israel's ultra-religious community; the growth of the Israeli right and the connection between the two.

There also is an increase in the number of those who enjoy comfort in a more affluent Israel and who are complacent about issues of war and peace. No longer are most Israelis fearful of attack from their immediate neighbours. The overwhelming assaults on Hezbollah and Hamas in 2006 and 2008-2009 added to people's sense of security even as the operations fuelled an international campaign against Israel.

These are not trends that suggest any eagerness to make peace. Indeed the demographics are moving in the opposite direction.

In its annual report this week, Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics said the country's population had reached 7.5 million - fuelled largely by high birth rates as well as modest immigration (16,000), particularly among the religious and the right.

The CBS also noted that about 10,000 people emigrated from Israel in the past year. There are no data on the motives for emigration, but you can bet that most of those who left were not religious, were not on the right and probably were not among the country's comfortable and complacent. Even as those three groups grow in size, the country's secular and left-wing sectors are shrinking.

"This political alignment could be dominant in Israel for some time to come," said Mr. Alpher.

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There is little that U.S. policy can do to shake the religious or the right-wing communities. But there may be something it can do to afflict the comfortable.

That's what Mr. Indyk did this week in trying to jolt Israelis out of their complacency.

If it wishes, Washington has several tools to use.

Some have suggested it can withhold some or all of its $3-billion in aid to Israel each year. Others have urged that it vote next month against Israel's admission to the elite Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Still others ask that Washington not stand in the way of the Goldstone report (on alleged Israeli violations of international humanitarian law during its assault on Hamas in Gaza 16 months ago) reaching the World Court.

Ahead of next month's assembly of the 189 signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Egypt has asked Washington to support its request for a conference to negotiate a treaty on a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, an idea that Israel strongly opposes. Washington has indicated it is considering the idea.

Any or all of these measures could be applied.

Perhaps bending to the prospect of such pressure, the Israeli leadership seemed poised yesterday to offer an arrangement that might facilitate a resumption of the long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu was reported by Israeli media to have agreed to a suggestion by Defence Minister Ehud Barak that Israel accept a limited Palestinian state within temporary borders, as long as no part of Jerusalem is included and the status of the contested city is left until a later date.

There too, there are constraints, however. Palestinians are eager for a state but worry that "temporary borders" will become long-term, perhaps permanent, and they do not want to sell their soul at bargain price.

It is, however, the first sign that Israel, at least, may be seeing itself in a whole new light.

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