Israeli-US relations have seen better days

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has a long and contentious history with US presidents and his relationship with Barack Obama is no different.

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On a private visit to Israel to celebrate his son's bar mitzvah on May 26, Rahm Emanuel invited the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to the White House. Mr Emanuel, Barack Obama's fearsome chief of staff, extended the invitation in the hope that it would end the strained relationship between the two allies, which had been suffering for months because of Israel's refusal to stop building Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

The rapprochement was set for Tuesday at the White House. It was hoped that Mr Netanyahu would even receive the red-carpet welcome normally lavished upon leaders visiting Washington. He first flew to Canada, another unswerving ally, and told a crowd of rapturous supporters at a rally in a Toronto stadium that "a future Palestinian state must be effectively demilitarised." This is a remark sure to anger the Palestinian leadership and irritate American diplomats south of the border who had just got delicate, indirect peace talks going.

But Mr Netanyahu's critical meeting with Mr Obama was cancelled, because on Monday he was forced to fly back home to deal with the fallout over the attack by Israeli commandos on the flotilla of six ships carrying hundreds of mostly Turkish activists who were trying to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver 10,000 tonnes of aid. Nine people were killed and scores more injured; the international condemnation was swift.

The disaster once again focused the world's attention on the plight of 1.5 million Gazans suffering under a three-year blockade that is designed to put pressure on the militant group Hamas, which controls the strip. International pressure is growing on Israel, and by default America, to lift the blockade and craft a new policy for Gaza. Turkey, perhaps Israel's only true Muslim friend, withdrew its ambassador to Israel and has made full restoration of diplomatic ties contingent on lifting the siege. The new British prime minister, David Cameron, also called for an end to the blockade and criticised the attack on the flotilla as "completely unacceptable". The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, this week called the situation in Gaza "unacceptable and unsustainable".

If Mr Obama has made restoring American prestige and credibility in the Muslim world a key goal of his presidency, Mr Netanyahu, in the 15 months since he came to power with the help of a far-right coalition, has not made the task easy. "My sense is, there is a division around the administration around the issue of Gaza and a lot of resentment at Netanyahu about getting them into another completely needless mess," said Prof Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies at New York's Columbia University.

On Mr Netanyahu's watch, the Turkish ambassador to Israel was publicly humiliated on television, a Hamas operative was assassinated in Dubai - an act widely blamed on Israeli intelligence - and the building of 1,600 homes in East Jerusalem was announced as Joe Biden, the US vice president was visiting Israel. The Obama-Netanyahu relationship did not get off to a good start. Mr Obama's first meeting with the Israel leader was in May last year, and it ran 30 minutes over schedule. The Israeli prime minister declined to endorse a two-state solution to the conflict and said his priority was thwarting Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Two months later he hinted that the Obama administration was anti-semitic because of its pressure to stop building Jewish homes on land in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their future capital. "I can only imagine what would happen if someone suggested Jews could not live in certain neighbourhoods in New York, London, Paris or Rome. There would certainly be a major international outcry."

The Obama administration at first demanded a complete freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but had to accept a 10-month partial suspension. "Netanyahu works as a salesperson; he tells everyone what they want to hear," said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow at Chatham House, a think tank in London. "He talks about a two-state solution but there is no conclusion whatsoever, and the freezing of settlements but then settlements are announced. His concern is survival as the prime minister and political manoeuvring."

He added: "I'm not convinced there is a policy in the US with how to deal with this." Mr Netanyahu has for years been a tricky player in the quest to find a peaceful settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton may wish to seek advice from the latter's husband, Bill, who occupied the Oval Office during Mr Netanyahu's first premiership, which lasted from 1995 to 1999. The two had a famously bad relationship, partly because the Israeli leader was opposed to the Oslo peace process and ignored the Wye River memorandum, which detailed a land-for-peace agreement. Mr Netanyahu instead expanded settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Clinton snubbed him several times. On one occasion in 1997, he would not find the time to say hello to Mr Netanyahu at Los Angeles International Airport even as their aeroplanes were parked nose to tail. When, in 1999, Mr Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak, who was perceived as more dovish, the White House celebrated. Mr Netanyahu lost that election partially because voters punished him for falling out with America.

A strong Israeli economy means he is unlikely to come under pressure from the public to change policy on Gaza, said Prof Tamar Hermann, who teaches at the Open University of Israel, speaking from Tel Aviv about the flotilla conflict. "Luckily for him he was away, so the major blame is put, if at all, on the minister of defence, Ehud Barak. There was a sense of rallying around the flag and the army, not necessarily around the politicians. This is something important to note. Israelis always support the army, particularly when they are being shown pictures of soldiers being thrown or stabbed or hit. So there was sympathy towards the soldiers, but there is a sense of criticism towards those who put them in this situation," she continued.

"But I don't see there is any chance the government would fall apart or that we will see a massive wave of anti-governmental protests." It is too early to tell if the flotilla attack would result in a lifting of the blockade and engagement with Hamas, because Israel still enjoys strong support in America, said George Giacaman, a political analyst at Birzeit University. "The perception is that Netanyahu has won more than one round against Obama," he said in an interview from Ramallah.

"Now the question is, in a few months will the position of the Obama administration remain as weak as it seems at the present time? You have to keep in mind that the main cards Netanyahu has is support inside the US. The Israel lobby has considerable influence in Congress, but also elsewhere even within the administration." Prof Khalidi said that even if the administration was willing to talk to Hamas, there are considerable obstacles.

"Talking to Hamas poses real problems for this administration due to the Israel lobby's influence on Capitol Hill," he said. "There are laws that actually make it illegal for the administration to talk to Hamas or give any money to any entity that deals with Hamas. So even if there were a coalition government with Hamas and Fatah, there would be all sorts of legal hoops to jump through in order for the administration to talk to them. And I understand the administration did ask the Congress, who told them in no uncertain terms that it is against the law, they are terrorists and 'you can't do that'."

America gives Israel $3billion in aid every year, but it is extremely rare for the US president to use direct leverage against the Israelis. The last time an American leader did so was in 1991, when George Bush Sr threatened to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees from Israel if it did not freeze its settlement building. The Middle Eastern scholar Avi Shlaim once noted that America's policy of using moral and military support to give Israel the confidence to go forward in the peace process had achieved nothing.

The best proof was Mr Clinton, who was described as "the last Zionist" by many Israelis. "Yet even he could not sweet-talk Israel into a final settlement, " wrote Mr Shlaim. "If Clinton could not do it, nobody can. That leaves only one possible path to progress: an externally-imposed solution." Whatever happens next, Mr Obama will have to tread carefully if he is to succeed in bringing a peaceful settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, something that has eluded every other US president.

He has humbly acknowledged as much. On May 18 he admitted to Jewish Democratic members of Congress: "I walked through a minefield in the Middle East and I stepped on the land mines. I got some toes blown off." This article has been modified to reflect the statement: The best proof was Mr Clinton, who was described as "the last Zionist" by many Israelis. "Yet even he could not sweet-talk Israel into a final settlement, " wrote Mr Shlaim. "If Clinton could not do it, nobody can. That leaves only one possible path to progress: an externally-imposed solution." was made by Mr Shlaim and not the reporter.