Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Mr. Obama goes to Jerusalem

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Update from AIJAC

February 8, 2013
Number 02/13 #02

US President Barack Obama has now announced that he will be visiting Israel in March, after coming under some criticism for failing to do so during his first term in office. Details on the visit and what US officials hope will accomplish are reported here. (It is worth noting the White House has been clear that a new peace plan is not part of their agenda.) This Update looks at some of the issues likely be raised during the Presidential visit, or to affect it.

First up is Israeli blogger and journalist Shmuel Rosner who briefly lists and discusses a number of factors and questions relevant to the visit. Among these are the inevitable questions about Iran, prospects for renewed Israeli-Palestinian talks, the effects of the Israeli coalition negotiations and Obama's ability to influence Israeli opinion, which has been somewhat sceptical of his pro-Israel bone fides. Rosner also discusses the timing of the visit, and offers a number of reasons why it appears appropriate to go to Israel now. For this useful brief review of the major issues relevant to the visit, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the issues that should matter for Obama's visit was the Jerusalem Post in an editorial.

Next, the always insightful Israeli academic Barry Rubin offers his own take on what each side seeks to get out of the Presidential visit, and offers some broader analysis of what Israeli-American relations may look like over Obama's second term. He also reviews the somewhat rocky relations that prevailed over President Obama's first term, discusses the reasons he doubts Israeli-Palestinian peace progress is likely over the coming few years, and looks at some realities behind the current Israeli coalition negotiations. Rubin concludes by debunking expectations being raised in the international media that Obama will likely be able to expect major concessions from Israel during his visit, noting that Israel has little incentive to offer anything beyond symbolic gestures, because there is so little likelihood that any substantial concessions will lead to renewed, fruitful talks with the Palestinians. For his argument in full, CLICK HERE. A good guide to what President Obama should understand about Israel and how he can attain his policy aims there comes from Israeli politics expert Natan B. Sachs.

Finally, Canadian journalist and editor Jonathan Last notes a Middle East reality that seems to have eluded many observers - the changes of the so-called "Arab Spring"  are refuting the all too common belief  that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is at the core of the region's problems. He takes readers on a tour of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, and shows how Israeli issues are a complete sideshow to what is happening there, and not a major concern for the population, now dealing with other more critical issues. He notes that, whatever other mistakes he made, former US President Bush was right that Arabs want political freedom and this desire is unconnected with the doubtless strong feelings that exist about Israel. For this argument in full, CLICK HERE. Another excellent rebuttal of claims about the Israeli-Palestinian issue being the "core" problem comes from noted American writer Jeffrey Goldberg.

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A Few Comments on Obama’s Visit to Israel


Shmuel Rosner

Jewish Journal, February 5

As you’ve probably heard, President Obama will visit Israel next month, his first time as president. And for those people still upset with him for not visiting during his first term, here’s the good news: Obama’s visit is still much earlier in his second term than when George W. Bush visited. So there’s no reason to be upset — not about the timing of the visit. As for the reasons and the implications of this impending visit — this is no big surprise — here’s a list of things to be considered:

Iran

Remember Benjamin Netanyahu’s U.N. speech last September? Remember his “red line”? Summer is coming fast, and a presidential visit in early spring is one good way of attempting to give the United States and its allies more legroom to  maneuver. Obama wants to do more talking with Iran and needs Israel not to be too fidgety with its timetables. His presence is a way of reassuring Israelis that the United States is on their side and that they should not rush to action. Since the public isn’t eager to see action — Obama has a chance of succeeding with it. As for the prime minister, that’s another story. Netanyahu truly believes that he was planted in his office to do this one big thing of saving Israel from the peril of a nuclear Iran. If there’s one issue on which Netanyahu might decide to spite public opinion — Iran would be it.

Peace

One hopes that Obama got some assurances from both Israelis and Palestinians that his visit will not go to waste. The time for renewal of the peace process — that is, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority — is long overdue. If Obama can’t make it happen, his visit could be in danger of being labeled a failure. (On the other hand, expecting him to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to get the two sides much closer to resolving it would also be a huge mistake — he can’t do it).

Coalition Talks

Don’t underestimate the timing of the announcement. Potential coalition members now have a clearer choice: If they want to see Obama, they’d better hurry. If they want to keep claiming that Netanyahu is ruining Israel’s relations with the United States — their case just became less convincing.

Israeli Compromises

Obama’s visit would make Netanyahu seem stronger, at least for a while (until the visit, and possibly after it if the visit is successful). Obama is experienced enough to understand this and surely made Netanyahu pay some price for it. Where can Israel compromise? Iran is tough, but with his new coalition Netanyahu has more flexibility on the Palestinian front (he doesn’t yet have a coalition — but his potential coalitions give him this flexibility).

Syrian Tensions

As I argued last week, the situation in Syria is bringing the Israeli and the U.S. governments closer together. It will give Obama and Netanyahu one safer issue on which to agree.

Scheduling Complications

If Obama is going to Israel in late March, this means that the hope for him to come here for Shimon Peres’ Presidential Conference is pretty much dead. It also makes the annual AIPAC conference in early March a little less consequential. Netanyahu will not travel to Washington if Obama is coming to Jerusalem (or so I’d assume); Obama might not want to go to AIPAC and upstage his own visit just two weeks before it happens. For the past week I’ve been thinking that the smartest move for the administration would be to send Chuck Hagel to the AIPAC conference — if he is confirmed as secretary of defense. This would make an interesting speech, and would present AIPAC attendees with an interesting test of restraint.

Israeli Opinion

Can Obama move the needle of suspicion downward with this visit? The American president is perceived by many Israelis as pro-Palestinian or neutral. I’m not sure whether Obama cares much about being popular among Israelis, but I’m sure that some advisers have told him that being more popular would also make him more effective as he battles with Netanyahu over policy. The question for me is this: Can Obama still charm Israelis — or maybe it’s too late for him to change an already firm Israeli suspicion of him? (My answer: He can probably change Israeli minds, but not by making speeches — they’d have to see action to be convinced).

Agenda

One would hope Obama is well aware that Israelis are too busy with conscripting the ultra-Orthodox at the moment to be concerned with issues such as regional peace and the occupation. Seriously: Much like the United States, Israel is preoccupied with domestic concerns. Assuming coalition talks are completed by the time Obama comes, the new government will be busy with drafting a budget and planning for cuts in government spending and raising taxes. Obama’s visit will be a distraction — not an event that’s going to top the agenda for very long.

It’s Time

Four years ago, I wrote an article for The New Republic in which, somewhat nastily, I advised Obama not to come to Israel:

“[W]ords alone will not make Israelis trust Obama. Israelis do not suffer from lack of understanding of the issues; they suffer from peace-fatigue. They look at “peace processes” with suspicion, based on experience and events. They are scarred enough to know what has [worked] and what has not, and they are tired of the good intentions of enthusiastic novices, believing that with their youth and their smarts they’ll be able to come up with some magic trick that can somehow round a square. What Obama needs is a convincing plan that makes sense. It does not look like he has one.”

Now I think it’s good time for him to come. Why?

• Because it is clearly not about domestic politics — elections are over in both countries.

• Because expectations have been lowered enough for all parties involved to understand that peace isn’t coming “within a year or two.” No one expects a “magic trick” anymore.

• Because Obama is no longer an “enthusiastic novice” — he is a second-term president.

• Because Netanyahu needs an opportunity to be a gracious host to Obama. And it will save Obama at least one Netanyahu visit to Washington, where he keeps getting on the president’s nerves.

• Because the Middle East is in turmoil and this really isn’t the right time for these two leaders to keep bickering about one another.

• Because Obama has to be here at least once, so why not get it over with.

One question though: will he stay for the Seder?

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The Meaning of the Obama Visit to Israel and U.S.-Israel Relations in Obama’s Second Term

 

Barry Rubin

Pajamas Media, February 7th, 2013 - 10:07 am


The international media is speculating on Obama’s visit scheduled for late March. The argument is that he would not come unless he gets some breakthrough, that is, some Israeli concession, and he wouldn’t leave happy unless he received one.

So what would this concession be? The most likely candidate would be a freeze on constructing building within existing settlements, as Israel gave him three years ago. At that time, despite a ten-month freeze, the Palestinian Authority only came to talks at the last minute, offered nothing, and then quickly demanded another freeze. In other words, Israel did precisely what Obama asked and got nothing in return, either from his government or the Palestinians.

Actually, it is not technically true to say “nothing.” Secretly, the U.S. government promised to accept that Israel could annex “settlement blocs,” (a promise originally made by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush) that is keep the largest existing settlements near the border, in exchange for territorial swaps in a peace agreement, and to continue building in east Jerusalem.

What happened? A few months later, a visiting Vice President Joe Biden threw a tantrum about an announced zoning board decision that at some future point Israel might build in pre-1967 Jordanian-ruled territory. In effect, that was a violation of the agreement.

Then, while not explicitly going back on the settlement bloc agreement  without notifying Israel, Obama made a major speech in which he put the emphasis on Israel’s return to the pre-1967 borders (that is, giving up the settlement blocs), though he did leave the door ajar for territorial swaps. That was not breaking the pledge but certainly undermined it.

After doing what Obama wanted and then getting little or nothing in exchange, Israel is now faced with claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never made any concessions to get negotiations going. After going along with Obama, it is now said in the United States that he tried to undermine Obama or didn’t cooperate.

And after the Palestinian Authority repeatedly killed negotiations—even after Obama announced in 2010 that they would begin shortly at Camp David and Netanyahu agreed—it is a mainstay of mass media coverage that Netanyahu is responsible for the failure of negotiations to happen.

A friend joked that Netanyahu should change his first name from Benjamin to “Hard-line” since that’s the way he’s usually presented in the Western mass media.

Thus, Israeli cynicism should be—if people knew the factors behind it—understandable. After all, the sum total of international wisdom on the now-dead (but pretended to be alive) “peace process” is that this means Israel giving up things and getting nothing in return.

Yet Israel is prepared to go along with Obama again in some fashion. Why? Because it is necessary to preserve the strong relationship with the United States. Obama will be president for the next four years and some help from him is needed on the Iran nuclear issue, the likely growing threat from Egypt, military aid, and other issues.

That is political reality.

At the same time, though, the idea—again, prevalent in mass media coverage—that Netanyahu must “moderate” to form a government is not true. First, a very important lesson: Ignore everything said by Israeli politicians and media during the coalition-forming period because it is invariably misleading. This is what experience has shown virtually without exception.

Now, Netanyahu’s basic choice is to bring together at least two of the following three parties: The traditional liberal Yesh Atid led by Yair Lapid; the Sephardic religious Shas, and the right-wing Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi, led by Naftali Bennett. This is like the story of how you get the fox, the chicken, and the grain across a river without something getting eaten. It is very difficult.

Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, has called for Netanyahu to work hard to get talks with the Palestinians going again. This has been treated as some major move of pressure. Of course not. That’s what Lapid is going to say and should say. And Netanyahu should also say—as he has done hundreds of times in the last four years—that he wants to get negotiations going.

That does not deal, however, with how many unilateral concessions Israel is willing to give to give to do so and whether the Palestinian Authority—now believing it is victorious from having the UN recognize it as a state—would go along. Everyone knows this. So to say that Israel should try to get negotiations going again is equivalent to someone in America saying that it is important to improve the economy.

Yet the reality of coalition negotiations is this: Lapid doesn’t like Bennett and vice-versa; Lapid and Bennett don’t like Shas; Netanyahu doesn’t like Bennett and knows that adding him would create international costs. And by the way, would Bennett enter a government that started out by announcing a long freeze in construction?

So it isn’t as easy as mainstream conventional wisdom makes it seem.

It is also suggested the PA leader Mahmoud Abbas might actually give up something to get negotiations going. Like what? Perhaps giving up law suits against Israel—which is now supposedly occupying the territory of an internationally recognized Palestinian state, allegedly achieved without any agreement with Israel—in the international court.

Well, maybe. But Abbas faces massive political pressure in his society that far exceeds anything Netanyahu faces. What will he get for giving up what he has claimed as a trump card, a great victory? He certainly doesn’t fear pressure from Obama. Unlike Israel, the Palestinians can do anything they want and not face costs or even public criticism from the American president.

In other words, the whole thing isn’t going to work. Obama might come away with just enough to claim some success, a claim that will be echoed in the mass media. But it would be meaningless.

From Israel’s standpoint, however, letting Obama take the bows as a great peacemaker is worthwhile as long as it doesn’t cost too much or involve too much risk. Ironically, because of Obama’s policies and the rising boldness of its enemies and a revolutionary Islamism that feels itself triumphant, Israel is going to need U.S. support a bit more in the coming four years.

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Welcome to the new Arab world — where no one really cares much about Israel


Jonathan Kay

National Post, Jan 29, 2013

When Israel declared independence in 1948, every single one of its Arab neighbours sent in their armies to destroy the Jewish state. The war convulsed the region, as did the many wars that followed. To this day, the received wisdom among bien-penants is that Israel’s very existence is the main destabilizing factor in the Levant.

And so, 65 years later, how bizarre is it to survey the results of the Arab Spring? Once again, every single one of Israel’s immediate neighbours is locked in a potentially cataclysmic struggle — but this time, the Arab chaos is all internal. For the populations of Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, it as if the Israeli menace were merely an engrossing, terrifying epic film that suddenly has come to an abrupt finale. The house lights have come on, and the viewers’ minds are returning to the real-life internal problems that have been festering in their autocratic societies for generations.

Syria is in a state of full-fledged civil war, largely waged by Sunnis who are seeking to dethrone Bashar Assad’s Alawite-led dictatorship. Mr. Assad has made some vague and pathetic attempts to implicate “Zionist” conspirators, but no one is buying it. The only Israeli border incident of note was a Syrian-on-Syrian skirmish, during which government ordinance accidentally fell on Israeli soil, to no effect.

Next door in Lebanon, there have been spillover skirmishes, and the country’s leaders are doing everything they can not to get sucked into the Syrian vortex. Yet Hezbollah fighters (who support the Assad regime, for cynical reasons connected to their Iranian patrons) go back and forth freely across the border, along with refugees. It is this border, not the Israeli-Lebanese border, that is likely to become Lebanon’s next flash point. Hezbollah remains the dominant power-broker in Lebanon, but will become isolated and vulnerable once Iran loses its logistical routes through Syrian soil. Lebanon fought a long and complicated civil war from 1975 to 1990, and another one could come soon — but this time, Israel will be smart enough to sit it out.

Egypt is not in a state of civil war. But its military leader is warning of a “collapse of the state,” amidst continued deadly clashes with protesters in several cities. (The latest spark involved was a spate of death sentences handed out to 21 Port Said soccer hooligans who’d rioted in 2012.) With a Muslim Brotherhood President at the helm, the country is racked with debate and anxiety about the role of Islam in public life. But even that grand theme has little to do with the current violence, which apparently is rooted in obscure inter-municipal grievances nursed by residents of Egypt’s non-Cairene population. While the Western press has spotlighted President Mohamed Morsi’s views on Israel, and Jews in general, the whole subject of confronting the Zionists is non-existent as an Egyptian national priority: Egypt’s only military project in Sinai has been to confront Jihadi terrorists who are the shared enemy of Egypt and Israel alike. In the May 2012 presidential debate between former Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa and self-described Islamist moderate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, four and half hours passed before the word Israel was even mentioned.

Finally, there is Jordan, long seen as the Morocco of the Levant. Last week’s parliamentary elections went smoothly. But the country has been destabilized by waves of refugees from Iraq, and now Syria. So much so that the country is now declaring that it will not accept any more refugees — including, most controversially, Syrian Palestinians. “We do not encourage our Syrian brothers to come to Jordan because their country needs them more and they should remain there,” the Jordanian PM declared, explicitly raising the prospect of a quasi-humanitarian military action on the border. “We will stop them and keep them in their country.”

For a regular observer of the Middle East, it is actually quite stunning to read such a steady stream of reports from countries that, in the not-too-distant past, have defined their entire national mission as being the eradication of the Jewish state. Syria is actually still technically at war with Israel — as, of course, is Hezbollah. Even in Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with Israel, explosive gestures of anti-Israel hate were a mainstay of street demonstrations under Hosni Mubarak, since it was one of the few officially permitted forms of political protest.

But now that Mubarak is gone, Egyptians are free to shout and protest, and even riot, over the things that really matter in their lives. And apparently, Israel doesn’t even make the top-10 list. Instead, what these people care about is the nature of their government, the price of bread and gas, the treatment of women and Copts and Alawites, soccer and — yes — freedom.

That f-word is important here because for the last decade, George W. Bush and the neo-cons have been denounced as naive, and worse, for insisting, post-9/11, that the Muslim world hungered deeply for Western-style liberty, so much so that they would welcome American troops on Arab soil.

That last part was wrong. But Bush was perfectly correct on his much larger point, which I never grow tired of repeating. “We must shake off decades of failed policy in the Middle East,” he declared in 2003. “In the past, [we] have been willing to make a bargain to tolerate oppression for the sake of stability. Long-standing ties often led us to overlook the faults of local elites. Yet this bargain did not bring stability or make us safe. It merely bought time while problems festered and ideologies of violence took hold.… No longer should we think tyranny is benign because it is temporarily convenient. Tyranny is never benign to its victims and our great democracies should oppose tyranny wherever it is found.”

Bush was talking about protecting America. Yet the Arab Spring (of which Bush deserves to be considered its godfather) also has destroyed the cynical Arab political game of funnelling all of their population’s accumulated hate and frustration at Israel and the Jews.

I haven’t the slightest doubt that anti-Semitism remains rife in these Arab societies, and that solidarity with the Palestinians will continue to guide their posturing at times of war. But current upheavals show that ordinary Arabs now increasingly view Israel as a sideshow to the acute birthing pains of their own crumbling autocracies. Amid all the death and chaos, that counts as good news.

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