What (not) to expect from Obama’s visit to Israel

From left to right, Sara Netanyahu, Michelle Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Barack Obama. Credit: White House.

Sometimes you have to give politicians a little credit. If you heard through the grapevine that two of your friends had been discussing you, with one calling you a “liar” and the other one replying, “I have to deal with him even more often than you,” chances are you would cut ties. And that’s exactly what former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama said, respectively, about the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an unguarded moment at the G20 Summit in France two years ago.

Yet, in the aftermath of this exchange, it is the imperatives of statecraft, and not personal antipathies, that have won the day. Later this month, the recently re-elected Obama will visit Israel to be hosted by the recently re-elected Netanyahu. Doubtless, every journalist present will be watching both leaders for uneasy body language or facial ticks, as if the entire U.S-Israeli relationship can be interpreted through the fact that Bibi and Barack don't like each other.

While it’s true that warm personal relationships have enhanced the foreign policies of certain Presidents—think of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, or George W. Bush and Tony Blair—they are not a prerequisite for success. The key issue with Obama’s visit to Israel is not whether the President and Netanyahu can learn to like each other, but whether they can agree on common goals. Obama, in the past, has spoken of the importance of putting more “daylight” between himself and the Israelis. Perhaps the White House and Jerusalem might jointly decide that it’s time to close the gap, now that Obama and Netanyahu will remain in power until the middle of the present decade.

Perhaps. There remain important strategic differences between the two countries which one visit alone is unlikely to resolve (Obama’s decision to thus far avoid a trip to Israel, which outraged sections of the American Jewish community, is actually the least of these.)

To begin with, there is Iran. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has, as expected, rejected the Obama Administration's proposal for direct talks on the mullahs nuclear program ­—an offer which, depending on your point of view, was either a smart way of outing the Iranians true intentions, or a weak gesture reminiscent of the “reset” policy with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Additionally, there is a change of leadership to consider: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, is on his way out, with a June election that may well see his hated rival, Ali Larijani, replace him. Larijani, however, is no reformer. A former nuclear negotiator, he is also, like Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who regularly rants about his desire to destroy Israel. Unless Obama can conclusively persuade Netanyahu that the sanctions imposed on Iran are working, their conversation on this topic is likely to reach the question of pre-emptive military action much more quickly than either would desire.

Then there is the situation in the Arab world. Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of his own population continues unabated, is the most pressing concern. America’s lack of leadership over the Syrian crisis, which contrasts markedly with France’s intervention against Islamist terrorists in the west African state of Mali, has piled doubt upon the endless predictions that Assad’s regime is in its final days. Assad’s ire has turned again upon Israel, following an air strike in early February against what was reported to be a military research center near Damascus. All this has increased the instability on Israel’s northern frontier, which exploded into war as recently as 2006, after Hezbollah, a client of both Syria and Iran, rained missiles on Israeli towns and cities in the region. Nor are any of the post-Assad scenarios particularly comforting, given the rising presence of Islamists in the Syrian resistance.

In addition to Syria, Egypt and potentially the rest of North Africa will be on the agenda as a result of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in this part of the world. The Israelis can’t be pleased with the continuing provision of more than $1 billion in American aid to Egypt annually, given the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel noises President Muhamed Morsi and his cronies have been making. At the same time, the Americans can point out that Morsi’s control over the Egyptian army is far from complete, and that therefore a strong Egyptian military is a useful counterweight to the Islamists.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

Finally, there is the Palestinian issue. As well as visiting Israel, Obama will visit the Palestinian Authority, which promises to be a far bigger headache. The Palestinian strategy of pursuing unilateral recognition, and of portraying Israel’s attempts to secure the integrity of Jerusalem as a devious scheme to deny them a contiguous state, does not comport well with American policy, however big the disagreements between Obama and Netanyahu have been. In Ramallah, Obama will face a Palestinian leadership whose current modus operandi is to diplomatically isolate, rather than engage with, Israel. Moreover, it is a leadership that remains divided between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. Nor should we forget that the backing of Hamas by two key American allies in the region, Turkey and Qatar, threatens to bury the PA’s talks with Obama into migraine-inducing complexity.

Some readers will already be aware that I’ve ranked the above topics in order of priority. The Palestinian question is not, as Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, believes, the key to stability in the Middle East. Right now, a Palestinian state alongside Israel—the much-vaunted and increasingly tired-looking “two state solution”—will satisfy no one. Arab and Muslim radicals will denounce any hint of a deal as treachery, leaving PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who hasn’t exactly established his credentials as an honest negotiator, with little room for maneuvering.

The wisest way of approaching Obama’s visit, then, is to do so without expectations. If Obama repeats his pledge made during the election campaign to stand by Israel in the event of an attack, that outcome will be satisfying enough. Presidential visits abroad are, in any case, carefully stage-managed events. The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be tested not while Obama is in the country, but once he is gone.

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Posted on March 3, 2013 and filed under Israel, Opinion, U.S..