Obama in Israel: Running to Stay Put

President Barack Obama heads to Israel, Palestine and Jordan for the first foreign trip of his second term

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Preparations continue a day ahead of President Barack Obama's arrival at the Israeli President's residence in Jerusalem on March 19, 2013

President Barack Obama heads to Israel late Tuesday for the first foreign trip of his second term, a visit more about maintaining the status quo in a region filled with upheaval than about historic treaties or groundbreaking peace deals. When U.S. Presidents visited Jerusalem in years past, it was for big reasons, usually involving the ends of various conflicts or to make a push for Middle East peace. Obama’s ambitions are a lot smaller.

The President’s hopes for this trip are about getting leaders not to do things, rather than prompting action. In Jerusalem, he needs Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to bomb Iran before diplomatic talks have run their course. He also wants Netanyahu to stop, or at least slow, the building of new settlements in Palestinian areas so as to give the peace process a chance. And Obama would like Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas not to report Israel to the International Criminal Court for human-rights violations. “This trip is about managing Middle East problems. It’s not about solving them,” says Haim Malka, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The President’s broad objectives are to convince the Israeli and Palestinian publics that he’s protecting their interests and preventing their leaders from taking any unilateral steps that would undermine U.S. interests and their own,” Malka says.

(MORE: The Secret of the Wonder Weapon That Israel Will Show Off to Obama)

For an American President, Obama is unusually unpopular among Israelis: he had a 33% approval rating last year. Which is why instead of speaking to the Israeli parliament, Obama chose to give a speech directly to the Israeli people. “Given this is his first trip to Israel as President, we thought that it was very important for him to speak directly to Israelis about the nature of the friendship between the United States and Israel, and the challenges that we’re faced with,” Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters ahead of the trip. Obama may not change public opinion with a single speech, but courting the Israeli public will help build trust when the President asks their leaders to have faith that the U.S. will act to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Israel worries that Iran is using talks with international powers as a way to stall while building a program that can rapidly enrich enough uranium not just for one bomb but for many. “Think of the Iranian nuclear-weapons program as a horse race: now, when the bell goes off, a single horse might be able to gallop out of the gate and run a full track in front of spectators,” Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren says. “The Iranian regime, though, wants to unleash 20 horses out of the gate at the same time,” he says. For Israel, Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is a much more existential threat than for Washington, lying safely 6,000 miles away. Jerusalem’s military opportunity to strike Iran is closing, while the U.S. has a longer timeline to hit Iran’s centrifuges. Obama is asking Israel to trust he’ll protect them when they no longer can protect themselves; that would give negotiators more time to come to a diplomatic resolution.

(PHOTOS: President Obama’s First Trip to Israel)

On the peace process, Obama intends to do a listening tour, visiting with both Israelis and Palestinians and seeing where common ground might be found. Little has been done on a two-state solution since U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell resigned in disgust in May 2011, saying the process had “hit a brick wall.” Secretary of State John Kerry, who will be traveling with Obama, is anxious to take advantage of Israel’s recent election — Netanyahu literally only just formed a government over the weekend — to see if moderate Israeli support can be drummed up for a new round of talks. But no breakthrough is expected on this trip — indeed the White House did everything it could to lower expectations publicly.

(MORE: Israel Uneasy on Iran Ahead of Obama’s Visit)

Peace talks mean getting the Palestinians to the table as well, and Abbas has not wanted to restart a whole new process, insisting the Israelis go back to the terms he negotiated with the last Israeli government under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2008. Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted the talks begin anew. Abbas is further debilitated by Hamas’ control of the Gaza Strip and the Islamist group’s growing popularity in the West Bank. Without the popular support of all Palestinians, Abbas’ bargaining position is weak and he has little incentive to come to the table. Until the Palestinian factions are united, it will be impossible for Abbas — or any Palestinian leader — to compromise with Israel without losing credibility at home.

Abbas’ only power — and popularity — of late has come when he defied both Israel and the U.S. to petition the U.N. to recognize Palestine as a state. Having Israel tried for human-rights violations by the International Criminal Court is wildly popular among Palestinians and one of the only threats remaining to Abbas. Obama’s job will be to convince Abbas that coming to the table with Israel and the U.S. is in his better interests than going outside the process. Obama must also reassure the Palestinian people of America’s support. To that end, Kerry has said he will deliver $700 million in aid to Palestine withheld by Congress after Abbas’ push for statehood at the U.N. Since Obama took office in 2009, some 60,000 more Israelis have settled on Palestinian lands, and Obama will press for a freeze or slowing of those developments. The Palestinians are also hoping Israel will release 1,000 prisoners and return some of the tax money Jerusalem collected from Palestinians but has held back for months.

Perhaps Obama’s trip will also be highly symbolic. He will view the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000-year-old evidence of Israel’s long ties and ancient claim to the land. The President will also visit Mount Herzl, where he’ll lay wreaths at the graves of slain Israeli President Yitzhak Rabin and Zionist Theodor Herzl, who envisioned an Israeli state before the Holocaust. In the West Bank, Obama will visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

(MORE: Netanyahu Finally Forms a Government, but It’s Nearly as Painful as the Election)

The President will wrap up his tour in Jordan, where he’ll try to persuade King Abdullah not to close his borders to Syrians fleeing the two-year-old civil war, even as Jordan’s economy buckles under the strain of 400,000 refugees, with twice that number expected by year’s end. Jordan’s economy has also taken a hit as tourism has fallen off because of regional unrest and the perception of insecurity. To promote Jordan, Obama will play tourist for a day, visiting the ancient site of Petra with 500 international journalists in tow, demonstrating how safe and appealing Jordan’s tourist attractions remain. Jordan also hopes for more pledges of support from the U.S. for the Syrian refugees and for its own economic reforms.

All of Obama’s efforts this week will be running to stay in place: from pushing Israelis and Palestinians to place international interests above domestic pressures, to bolstering Jordan’s regime against the pressures of the Arab Spring. Sometimes the second-term Presidents look abroad for a legacy. So far, Obama’s second-term foreign policy ambitions in the Middle East are hardly lofty: striving for the status quo ante, lest things get worse than they already are.

MORE: State of the Union: No Obama Doctrine on Foreign Policy

22 comments
econmagic
econmagic

I think Obama's aproach, while it may seem timid, since he is not pushing for the imposible is the right aproach.  It is presently imposible of course to achieve peace between Israel and its neighbors.  Not for the usuall reasons that people publically like to point out, like the status of Jerusalem, or the strategic security of a country (Israel), which presently does not have any real military chalengers, courtesy of $3.5 billion a year in military aid, comming from the US taxpayer.  The real reason, which I'm sure world leaders are contemplating privately is that Israel would not be a viable state presently without unrestricted access to water from the lands it currently occupies.

http://zoltansustainableecon.blogspot.com/2013/02/water-israels-true-barrier-to-peace.html

YehudaElyada
YehudaElyada

Maintaining the status quo is no small accomplishment in the current fluid state of the Middle-East. No one can confidently chart a political course between Arab Spring countries gone mad, like Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, the repressive ultra-conservative petro-kingdoms (Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Golf states) and the aggressive Muslim fundamentalist movements that knows no borders. Not to mention bleeding Iraq and murderous Sudan. The Arabs know this and will never commit to ending the Syrian civil war, except by shadowy means. The only sure thing is, that whoever gets involved will be blamed for not achieving the impossible. There is no point in pressuring Netanyahu, who is better tuned to prevailing sentiment in Israel than any foreign reporter reflecting on the distorted image projected from left-wing Israeli media. There is no chance for peace agreement with the Palestinians as long as they are not ready to accept the fundamental premise: that Israel is the national homeland of the Jewish people and has every right to defend this characterization indefinitely. Once this condition is accepted, the rest is negotiable, and there is substance behind the different bargaining policies advocated by different parties comprising the Israeli government. Until then, it’s just window dressing.

semicolin14
semicolin14

To any critics of Israel, just like any country, it has things to work on (put simply). However, it is the only democracy in the region as well as the only country that offers equal rights to its gay citizens and its women (once again, put simply). I agree that settlements are problematic, but to neglect to acknowledge the progress that Israel has made as a country in terms of its high standard of living, scientific research, or high-profile academic work, is foolish. I truly hope that Obama coming to Israel will help lead to some sort of solution with the Palestinian people-whether it be a solution with two-states, one state, or otherwise. 

j.villain1
j.villain1

>"Abbas is further debilitated by Hamas’s control of the Gaza Strip and the Islamist group’s growing popularity in the West Bank. Without the popular support of all Palestinians, Abbas’s bargaining position is weak and he has little incentive to come to the table. Until the Palestinian factions are united, it will be impossible for Abbas — or any Palestinian leader — to compromise with Israel without losing credibility at home."

The American press needs to stop the lies. Both Hamas and Fatah are in agreement. It is Israel that is against a peace deal because if there isn't one they get to keep every thing.

"The changing role of Hamas

RT: Today, the other part of the Palestinian resistance, Hamas, is increasingly leaning towards a political solution of the problem rather than a military one. Have you noticed the shift?

MA: Yes, we have. Moreover, that’s something we have agreed on. A number of Hamas members support this stance. That’s what we agreed on during our meeting in Cairo, and several months ago at the summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation we reaffirmed that the Palestinian people have the right to non-violent resistance. We are going back to the negotiating process. There is no disagreement on this between us and Hamas leaders, though some keep saying that they don’t consider a peaceful solution the only option and don’t rule out military struggle. But all this talk stopped at the Cairo meeting, which was sponsored by the US and Egypt. Now this is Hamas’s official stance. Pay no attention to the odd Hamas members that say different. "

http://rt.com/news/abbas-palestine-israel-interview-336/

Report: Mashaal agreed to 2-state solution

Jordanian sources claim King Abdullah II set to inform US President Obama of Hamas' willingness to accept two-state solution

http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4339225,00.html


As opposed to Israel.

"New housing minister rejects settlement freeze as ‘dreadful’ idea We’ll build in Judea and Samaria at the same pace as we have done up to now, says Jewish Home’s Uri Ariel, a former head of the Yesha settlers council"

http://www.timesofisrael.com/new-housing-minister-rejects-settlement-freeze-as-dreadful-idea/

"No peace partners, says incoming deputy defense minister Danny Danon: United States and the rest of the world will have to get used to increased settlement construction"

http://www.timesofisrael.com/no-peace-partners-says-incoming-deputy-defense-minister/

 

roknsteve
roknsteve

Lots of freedom lovers in these comments.  Freedom lovers to block poeple by sea.  Freedom lovers to block people by land.  Freedom lovers here in America should find a way to put those people behind a wall and see how they like it.

EnriqueGarciaSolis
EnriqueGarciaSolis

Obama should dissasociate the US from the jews and Israel! Through intimidation, this people has Congress by the throat to the point that whatever US policy touches them is perverted to their profit. Fully 1/3 of all foreign aid is given Israel with no limitations and as a lump-sum at the beginning of each fiscal period.  This money has been used to build several atomic bombs, purchase armament to suppress palestinians, build a ghetto wall, construct illegal settlements in palestinian land, and generally steal palestinian land.  In the last half-century this people have been the prime example of a terrorist nation, biased against arabs and goyims to the core.  

deconstructiva
deconstructiva

Jay, thanks for your overseas work, as always. Given Netanyahu's hawkish attitudes towards Iran and hostility towards Palestine (settlements, etc.), how much of a populist opposition to him exists among everyday Israelis? Maybe they realize that a moderate leader could improve peace chances, can't be worse than now. I'm guessing there's not enough opposition (or will?) in their parliament to obstruct his policies. (Though of course, the most obvious examples of minority obstruction happen HERE no thanks to the Tea Party:  Senate filibusters and rigged House election gerrymandering. But I digress.)

bobell
bobell

Thanks for an excellent summary, Jay.  In the Middle East today, as usual there seem to be all sorts of possibilities for disaster and very few opportunities for improvements on any front.  If the most Obama can hope for is not to make things worse, then it's appropriate that he apply the first principle of healing to this bleeding sore of a geographical area: First, do no harm.

I'm smart enough to know I'm not smart enough to come up with a panacea for what ails the Middle Esat. Fortunately for the Middle East, that's not my job.  Unfortunately for the Middle East, the people whose job it is don't seem to be doing any better.

rohit57
rohit57

@semicolin14 When a rich and well educated person A exploits and mistreats someone who is less rich and less educated B, we can surely respect the wealth and education of A, but we can hardly stop there.

Indeed, there is nothing new in the world in the rich exploiting the poor and complaining that the latter are not well educated and do not wash often enough. 

SergeBaruch
SergeBaruch

@j.villain1You should stop lying yourself: the collusion between Hamas and Fatah doesn't make Abbas',  Khaled Meshaal's. or Ismail Haniyeh's position any stronger. Simply because none of them doesn't represent any Palestinians, they represent only their own thuggish cliques. Prey tell when a parliamentary election has happen last time either in Gaza or in Ramalah enclaves?

bobell
bobell

@EnriqueGarciaSolis Not all Jews are Israeils, and not all Israelis are Jews.  Do you understand that?  If not, you should learn it.  If so, then you seem not to care that you''re being offensive.

Which is it?

bobell
bobell

@deconstructiva I claim no expertise in this matter, but I think Israelis --- like Americans, only many times as much -- are concerned with their own security.  If keeping Israelis safe means oppressing Palestinians, that's a price they;re willing to pay.  And that, is my one-sentence summary of what's preventing any significant alteration in the status quo.  As long as Bibi keeps Israelis safe, he's going to be running their government.

Notwithstanding Stein's Law (Anything that can't go on forever, won't), I don't see anything in the internal dynamics between the Israelis and the Palestinians that's going to alter things.  But there are plenty of externalities -- from Iran's nuclear program to the Syrian Civil War to the turmoil in Egypt -- and eventually one of those is going to break into the current closed cycle of Israeli-Palestinian relations.  If you or anyone else can tell me what will happen then, I'd be grateful.

EnriqueGarciaSolis
EnriqueGarciaSolis

Why is there NO organized resistance by jews against Israel's jingoism and American jews' aggressiveness toward Palestinians?

j.villain1
j.villain1

@bobell 

The problem is that the Palestinians arenever given a channce to make their views known to the American people. It is currently a monologue conducted by AIPAC on the right and JStreet on the left with no one ever asking the Palestinians for their opinion. No more was this more clear than this load of crap by those legendary foreign affairs experts "The House of Representatives".

 http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/05/a-one-sided-house-hearing-against-palestinian-reconciliation.html