Obama’s new Holy Land mission – it’s all about balance

After putting off undertaking what would undoubtedly have been a difficult, contentious visit to Israel his entire first term as president, the White House announced on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan in the early spring. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines the motivations for Obama’s newest ‘new beginning’ in the region.

Although a specific date was not mentioned in that announcement, the Israeli news outlet, Channel 10, said his US President Barack Obama’s trip would begin on 20 March when he arrived in Israel. Obama apparently discussed the visit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the end of January, when Obama had called the Israeli prime minister to congratulate him on his victory in his country’s election.

Discussing the announcement, the American National Security Council spokesperson, Tommy Vietor, told the media, “The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria.” The White House’s spokesman, Jay Carney, added separately that Obama would also meet with Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials during his visit to Jordan and the West Bank. Expect discussions to include a lot more than the Israeli-Palestinian tangle of course. Think, perhaps, of some extended conversations that also turn to the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the chaos in Syria, the instability in Egypt – and now, just perhaps, that drone base in Saudi Arabia…

Observers and analysts of Middle East developments are already beginning a commentary drumbeat about the planned trip, coming as it does, only two months after Obama’s second term has begun. They are saying this visit represents a chance for the two men to improve their visibly bumpy relationship – perhaps using another one of those re-start buttons. But, the trip will also almost certainly raise expectations about the launch of a new American peace initiative and thereby creating a bubble of anticipatory hopes about a new peace initiative from the American president. This is especially so because a real full-court-press-of-a-peace-initiative essentially eluded Obama and his foreign policy team in his first term as president. The Obama administration has previously warned others about setting too high a bar of expectations for a breakthrough in the stalemated – indeed, dormant – negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian representatives, especially because of its own inability to get just such negotiations under way.

While Obama had previously visited Israel and Jordan while he was still running for president in 2008, he has not returned to those two nations. On the other hand, he gave a major speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009, ostensibly directed to the entire Arab world – during a trip that took place a little more than a year and a half before the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In that June 2009 Cairo address, in which Obama had called for a “new beginning” with the Islamic world, Obama had told his audience, “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”, although there has been very little pressure from the US on those settlements. During that trip, Obama did not stop in Israel, instead visiting Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Germany. During those stops, Obama had emphasised the human cost of the Holocaust and the moral imperative of defending Israel. Romney, among others, later tried to make the lack of an Obama stopover in Israel a campaign issue.

Then, later, after the US had helped end Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, many in the region wondered when Obama would step forward to try to shape the course of the Arab Spring. The Obama administration has also taken significant criticism from Republican congressional leadership over its apparent passivity in guiding developments in the Arab states.

Moreover, Obama’s lack of an Israel visit during his presidency has generated significant criticism of his administration from a number of pro-Israel lobbying and interest groups within the US. On the other hand, however, Jewish-American voters did not share that opinion, electing instead to continue their strong support for him in the 2012 election.

This time around, the trip offers a chance to improve his level of support among Israelis – and perhaps among Palestinians as well. Although Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment on this upcoming trip, Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official from the Palestine Liberation Organisation, said, “We hope that this is more than just a symbolic visit, but with a clear message and clear commitment to the genuine substance and imperative of peace.”

Another dynamic has entered into this equation, however. Somewhat unexpectedly, Netanyahu emerged from Israel’s January election with a weaker majority than before the election – and with an unexpected, significant electoral challenge from a new moderate centre-left party. Netanyahu now faces a 16 March deadline to cobble together a governing coalition. This sudden emergence of that new party has given some hope to those who have been calling on the hawkish Netanyahu to give peace with the Palestinians a higher priority than getting the support of the far right within Israel’s political life. On the other hand, Israel’s recent battle with the armed Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip has left some observers predicting a wider fight in future, especially as divisions have deepened in the Palestinian and Israeli electorates both over whether talks or war would resolve the conflict.

Up until the fact that this recent Israeli election and the announcement of Obama’s trip to Israel may yet change things around a bit, negotiations have essentially been in the freezer for years – in significant part because of Netanyahu’s continuing support for construction of still more Israeli settlements and housing units on the West Bank and in the immediate vicinity of East Jerusalem. The status and precise frontiers of these areas remain in dispute but the Palestinians claim them as essential parts of any future independent state.  

From the perspective of US-Israeli bilateral cooperation, however, despite the rough relationship between Obama and Netanyahu, on a range of regional security issues, the two have deepened security cooperation – as evidenced by rising US military aid to Israel such as the Iron Dome missile defence system. Moreover, Obama has publicly agreed with Netanyahu that Iran cannot be allowed to use its uranium-enrichment programme to develop an actual nuclear weapon, and this is an issue that will certainly be a key focus of discussions during Obama’s time in Israel.

Back on the American side of things, the actual impetus for Obama’s upcoming trip has been ongoing for some months. During the US presidential campaign, even as Mitt Romney pummeled Obama over what he kept calling his lacklustre support for Israel, the Obama campaign eventually responded that once he was re-elected, he would indeed visit Israel. At that point, Romney himself made his own flat-footed foray into international diplomacy, lumbering through Britain, Poland and Israel. During that trip Netanyahu had hosted Romney as if the Republican candidate was already an American and world leader. And although Netanyahu insisted that he was not actually backing a particular candidate, his treatment of Romney was almost universally seen as a spirited embrace of his candidacy – and a big time bet Romney would win in November. This was probably made easier because the two men had known each other for years.

Meanwhile, the less than smooth choreography between Obama and Netanyahu has been obvious since Obama took office in 2009. On one Washington trip, Netanyahu practically seemed to be giving Obama what amounted to a college first-year tutorial on the perils and pitfalls of Middle East peacekeeping. Then, more recently, Netanyahu addressed the US Congress and in his remarks he seemed to be all but visibly leading opposition to Obama re-election from within the US Capitol Building.

But the tide seems to have turned just a bit in the ensuing months. Obama’s victory in the presidential race, Netanyahu’s relatively weaker position within the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, after his own election, and even as a result of the ongoing civil strife in Syria and the roiling unrest in Egypt that continues to challenge President Mohamed Morsi have all shaken things up. Taken together, these developments may be setting up a situation where it is the Israeli government that will now be looking for more support from Washington, rather than trying to dictate the terms of their discussion.

As a result, some peace advocates have already been welcoming Obama’s trip, adding that discussions with Netanyahu and others should go beyond atmospherics. “The key is, they’ve got to use this as a real substantive jumping off point for a serious diplomatic initiative,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a Washington advocacy group. “This has to be more than a photo op to show that he cares… To make it a substantive trip that is more than a positive photo-op would require setting up a specific framework for an agreement and setting a tight deadline to achieve it.”

Beyond Israeli-Palestinian issues, the continuing strife in Syria will clearly be on the agenda for discussions. Most recently, Israel attacked a convoy of anti-aircraft weapons inside Syria that it had said it was concerned might be headed to arm Hezbollah forces.

Obama’s visit will take place amid concerns the two-state solution is in peril, especially as Israeli settlement construction continues to take place and as Hamas gains additional power within the Palestinian nationalist movement. Most observers believe that Hamas came out as stronger politically from the recent clash with Israel in Gaza. Until now, Hamas has continued to reject the Jewish state’s right to exist. Hamas and its rival Fatah are scheduled to meet this weekend as part of a reconciliation process. If the two groups reach an agreement and Hamas actually joins the Palestinian Authority, Obama would have to contemplate an awkward decision of whether or not to meet with a government that would now include as members representatives of a group the US government has officially listed as a terrorist movement.

Still, according to Dennis Ross, a former advisor to presidents Clinton and Obama on Middle East policy and a veteran figure in Middle East negotiations, “This trip is a signal that the president has an interest, not just in the peace issue, but also in the broader concerns that Israel is facing. In some ways, it will be the president travelling to Israel to ask for a new beginning.” Ross added that the plan for trip seems to stem from “a desire [by Obama] to connect with the Israeli public at a time when he can go and not have high expectations about having to produce something.”

Meanwhile, US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro insisted on Israel Radio just after the trip was announced that this upcoming visit would be one without preconditions. Shapiro added that Obama is not going to be intervening in Israeli elections or coalition talks, if for no other reason than he will arrive after a new government has been formed. (Left unsaid was the possibility that thought could be father to the deed – announcing such a trip might encourage formation of a coalition more receptive to resuming negotiations.) In that regard, Chemi Shalev, the US-based commentator for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, has written that Obama’s visit might actually help Netanyahu politically, boosting his peace-making credentials with the opposition.

As for how it will help Obama, David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy adds, “Obama knows that he’s going to have a lot of conversations with Netanyahu this year. Those conversations will be easier conversations if Obama connects with the Israeli public and demonstrates what he believes, which is that he has their back.” That makes Obama’s public engagement with Israelis of real importance, as well as how he connects with Arabs in the West Bank and in Jordan – and they with him under these new, changing circumstances. DM

Read more:

  • Obama to make first trip to Israel, part of a potential ‘new beginning’ with region at the Washington Post
  • Obama Plans Visit to Israel This Spring at the New York Times
  • Shapiro: Obama Israel trip ‘without precondition’ at the Jerusalem Post
  • Obama to visit Israel with ‘urgent’ agenda to restart Middle East peace talks with Palestinians at CBS
  • Text: Obama’s [2009] Speech in Cairo at the New York Times

Photo: Then US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Israel, July 24, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young


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