Australia/Israel Review

A Pilgrim’s Progress

Feb 26, 2013 | Amotz Asa-El

A Pilgrim's Progress

Amotz Asa El


Judging by his first State of the Union address since his reelection, US President Barack Obama will focus in his second term on domestic issues – from the deficit, defence spending, and neglected bridges to the minimum wage, gun control and trade relations.

After all this, there was very little time left in his speech for foreign affairs. Israel was only mentioned once and the Palestinians were not mentioned at all. Then again, several days earlier the White House had announced that Obama would be arriving in Israel on March 20 for a three-day visit that will include a sortie to Ramallah, and be followed by a visit to Jordan.

US officials, in what seems to be a mixture of regret over the past and concern over the future, have been playing down the visit’s importance and doing their best to lower expectations.

The past that American officials may regret lies in part in Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009, where he called on the Muslim world to join him and America in launching “a new beginning.” In his quest to inspire a Western-Muslim detente, Obama explained the merits of religious freedom, women’s rights, and industrial development, and scolded Islamist fundamentalists. In addition, he apologised to Iran for America’s backing of the coup in 1953 that resulted in the Shah’s return to power and said he would engage in talks with Iran over its nuclear program.
Even before the subsequent Middle Eastern mayhem, Obama’s speech seemed to many in Israel as unfair and aloof.

The American President’s failure at the time to visit the Jewish state, and his reprimand in the presence of the patently anti-Israeli audience in Cairo – “the settlements must stop” – angered many of Israel’s friends in his own party, not to mention Republicans. Reports at the time that Obama had obtained a gesture from Riyadh allowing Israeli planes to fly through Saudi Arabian airspace proved unfounded. So did expectations that the speech would jumpstart talks between Israel and its neighbours, or generally launch an era of good feeling within and between the countries of the region.

Four years on, Obama returns to an entirely different Middle East, a region shaken so profoundly that the host of the Cairo speech is now in jail for life while his entire administration has been replaced by people who often espouse the very Islamism that Obama condemned in that speech. The same is true of Tunisia, where secularist opposition leader Chokli Belaid was just assassinated, while Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain remain unstable. This is not to mention Syria, where the civil war has already taken more than 60,000 lives, and Egypt, where political violence has become chronic.

In short, despite his prodding and admonition, Obama’s gentler, kinder Middle East never showed up, and if anything has grown even more distant since his previous visit. What, then, will he be looking to accomplish now?

One possibility is that Obama wants to improve his image in Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. That is why he will use his visit to lay a wreath on Zionist founding leader Theodore Herzl’s tomb, not an ordinary fixture on foreign dignitaries’ visits to Israel. Obama’s planned visit to the Israel Museum’s Second Temple model also seems intended to make a statement, both to those who deny Israel’s ancient roots in the Land of Israel and to those who felt uncomfortable with the President’s insinuation in the Cairo speech that Israel would not have been born but for the Holocaust.

Similarly, Obama’s planned visit to an Iron Dome missile-interceptor battery, an Israeli development partly financed by the US, will celebrate American-Israeli defence ties, and at the same time serve as a reminder to Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas that US support for Israeli security is unflinching.

Such items on the visit are all nice, but it is doubtful they justify a relatively protracted absence from Washington. Consequently, some speculate that Obama may, after all, produce a surprise during his visit.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro’s insistence that Obama is coming mainly to consult and without preconditions does not sit well with the embassy’s plan to locate Obama’s main speech in a venue that will seat at least 1,000 Israelis. It takes no fortune-teller to suspect that this will end up being called “the Jerusalem Speech” and be compared with the Cairo speech, possibly emerging crowned as its antithesis, or its atonement, complement, or antidote.

The most dramatic outcome the visit can have is a festive announcement of a resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, perhaps a three-way photo where Obama is flanked by Mahmoud Abbas and Binyamin Netanyahu. Even that relatively modest aftermath is hard to predict right now, let alone real agreements between the sides. As things currently stand in the Middle East, all are busy closely following events around them, from Friday clashes in Cairo to continuous demonstrations in Amman, not to mention the war in Syria. With the exception of Bashar Assad, no leader in the region is in the mood for a gamble at the moment.

It is therefore believed that the substantive part of the visit will lie in Obama’s private talks with Netanyahu, and to a lesser extent also with President Shimon Peres. Netanyahu has said that the issues of the summit will be Iran, the Palestinians and the general Middle East mayhem. Barring dramas on the Palestinian front, this means further coordination and fine-tuning of contingency plans should push come to shove concerning the Iranian nuclear program. The chosen deadline on that front seems for now to be the Iranian presidential election scheduled for June. That event, which may trigger civil unrest whose aftermath is impossible to predict, will in any event produce Ahmadinejad’s successor, and a re-assessment concerning the likelihood of Iran changing course on its nuclear program.

For its part, Teheran is believed to be closely following Obama’s response to North Korea’s recent nuclear test. If Washington allows Pyongyang to get away with its provocation with impunity, Teheran will be emboldened to follow suit, on the assumption that the second-term Obama is the same first-term Obama who let the previous North Korean leader get away with the country’s first nuclear test.

But even if Obama has not changed since his first term, Israel has.

The recent general election has dealt a setback to Netanyahu, who remains in power but has lost a considerable chunk of his following to centrist meteor Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party. At the time of writing coalition talks had yet to mature, but the expectations are that Lapid will ultimately be Netanyahu’s main partner in the new government and in that role will demand, and obtain, some diplomatic movement.

Netanyahu’s appointment as peace negotiator of the dovish Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister, is seen as a first step in that direction.

Some in Israel think that Obama hastily read the election result as an opportunity to tell a gradually moderating Israeli public to back concessions to the Palestinians. Such an approach would be similar to the one Obama took in the Cairo speech – which was a public exhortation neither preceded nor followed by programmatic action.

Last time Obama arrived in the region to give a major speech, it took the Middle East a mere 18 months to descend into a global flashpoint of street violence, political instability, religious hostility, and international tension, involving a colourful slew of factions, nationalities, denominations, militias, governments, and superpowers. Hopefully, this speech’s aftermath will be less cataclysmic.



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