OPINION

Obama discovers the limits

One of the most prickly geopolitical equations is about to enter a new phase: US President Barack Obama has a full plate as he prepares to deal with Israel, Iran and the Palestinian issue. And the prognosis is not good. Upon his return from Israel recently, a veteran US official explained Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s «obsession» with Iran. His one and only goal is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the longtime Middle East expert said of the Israeli premier. The previous Israeli government, it now appears, had tried to persuade the outgoing Bush presidency to green-light an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear arsenal. Washington hesitated, seeing the serious risks involved. Israel, however, has already spent too much money and energy on preparations. People in the know in Tel Aviv believe that the Israeli government has passed the point of no return. The question is to what extent Israel can know the exact location of Iran’s nuclear arsenal and whether it is actually capable of neutralizing it. Experts have serious misgivings about both. For his part, Obama is putting pressure on Israel to curb the West Bank settlements and to enter into an agreement with Palestinians. Netanyahu refuses to do so and the US president is left wondering how far he can go before repeating the steps of Bush Senior, who was bashed by the Israel lobby when he tried to settle the Middle East dispute. Obama is well aware that without Iran he cannot push a negotiation over the Palestinian dispute or guarantee the smooth exit of US troops from Iraq. He has to strike a balance between pressuring Iran not to acquire nuclear weapons and his efforts to stabilize the broader region. Nevertheless, he would like to put pressure on Israel to defuse the anger of Muslims over Palestine but he realizes he does not have much room to maneuver. Once again, an American president is feeling the internal and external limitations on foreign policy making.