US President Barack Obama is coming to Israel later this week and opinions are widely divided as to whether this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing for Israel. I find that I myself cannot make up my mind either, and the more opinions I read, the more conflicted I feel.
On the one hand, if the President of our greatest and strongest ally is coming to visit, this is very good news for Israel as it broadcasts a message to our enemies that the world’s only superpower still considers us an ally. It will also do much to correct the impression given in Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech that the Administration wanted to insert “daylight” between the two countries. Given the serious instability and growing violence in all the countries surrounding Israel, this can only be good news for Israel.
On the other hand, whenever American officials, and especially Presidents, come to visit, Israel is expected to make some kind of concession towards the Palestinians as a “going-home present” for the President. This invariably leads to unfulfilled expectations on the Palestinian side, which in turn gives rise to more violence. We have already seen the beginning of this violence in the last few weeks with a serious rise in terrorist activity against Israelis in Judea and Samaria.
The concessions that Israel is expected to make are usually tangible, involving the release of dangerous prisoners, giving up land to the Palestinians or a building freeze (G-d forbid) in Judea and Samaria. These concessions are then pocketed by the Palestinians who then go on to demand yet more “compromises” from Israel, using international pressure to help their cause. This has been the “cycle of peace” for the last 20 years since Oslo.
The only concessions required of the Palestinians are reversible intangibles like stopping incitement in the media and educational system (this has been a requirement since the Oslo accords were signed in 1993) or arresting terrorists – who are then released in a revolving door scenario.
So you can understand the nervous suspicion felt by many if not most Israelis at the impending visit.
The Israeli and international media have been filled in recent days with op-eds and advice for President Obama ahead of his visit, and I will link to a few here (in no particular order) to help you make up your minds (or confuse you further) about the implications of this visit.
Obama has come in for a lot of criticism for not speaking in front of the Knesset, but rather in front of a group of students:
Instead Obama is bringing in student “representatives” from Israeli universities, a group that skews to the left. Tellingly, Ariel University, one of the country’s more conservative institutions, has been barred from sending a representative.
3. The entire event signals a lack of confidence in Israel’s government and encourages the left to sabotage Netanyahu. Obama probably sees this as payback.
4. The Knesset would allow Obama limited control, but the huge Convention Center will allow him a large audience that is certain to applaud in the right places.
5. It maintains Obama’s policy of keeping Israel at arm’s length without entirely breaking relations.
The official excuse is that the Knesset is not big enough for his audience, which is nonsense considering that all previous Presidents spoke in front of the Knesset.
What is worse is that Obama is excluding from his audience of students those who study in Ariel University. Nachman Shai, a Labour MK, has called for a boycott of Obama’s speech in protest at the exclusion of Ariel students. The US Embassy defended Obama, saying that only students from institutions partnered with the Embassy were invited. A Twitter friend recommends protesting on Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s facebook page about the exclusion of Ariel students. One can similarly protest there about the continued incarceration of Jonathan Pollard.
David Ha’ivri in the Times of Israel gives some words of advice to President Obama concerning the cruel and unusual punishment meted out to Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard:
But most hurtful is your cruel treatment of Jonathan Pollard. This is totally unacceptable. His punishment has lasted too long. Of all points of dissatisfaction with you, Mr. Obama, I think it is safe to say that Israelis are most discontented with your shameless extended imprisonment of Pollard. It is hard to consider as a friend someone who is holding our brother in such a hopeless manner. My best advice is that if you wish to speak with the Israelis and be heard, bring Pollard home. Show just a small gesture of compassion. If you have no heart for the pain of the Jewish people, don’t expect us to consider you anything other than a modern day Pharaoh.
David Weinberg in Israel Hayom advises the Americans to reset the peace process:
Eiland concludes that widening the circle of actors taking part in a settlement can transform the current deadlock from a zero-sum situation to a win-win scenario. Negotiators need to move, he says, towards a regional approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in which Arab states take responsibility for solving the conflict and invest concrete, tangible resources in the solution.
Options that have to be considered, he says, are a Palestinian-Jordanian federation; shared sovereignty in the West Bank; a three- or four-way land swap involving Egypt and Jordan; and, most likely, a combination of all these approaches.
Alexander H. Joffe in Middle East Forum is most scathing about the visit and wonders why on earth Obama is going to Israel?
But the real impact of the Obama visit to Israel will not be in Israel but rather in Arab and Muslim countries. After all, it is in those countries that Obama has arguably (and if popularity polls are to be believed, unsuccessfully) invested the most political capital, and it is there that his trip to Israel will create the most disappointment and resentment. The ‘Arab Street’ will want to see overt confrontation between Israel and the US and will be disappointed when it doesn’t appear. More nuanced observers in those societies will assume other forms of American pressure on Israel, because they desire it, and then will be disappointed when evidence does not quickly appear. And virtually all local observers, especially in government ministries and official media, will obsess over the visit as a welcome respite from the situations in Syria and Egypt. The near tragic element of Obama’s visit and its timing then is that it plays directly into the region’s traditional use of Israel as a weapon of mass distraction.
Obama’s visit, by virtue of being routine and ill-timed has the potential to feed the region’s worst instincts. Disappointment with Obama will quickly turn to the default setting of blaming Israel.
Jeffrey Goldberg, on the other hand, and as expected, sees three reasons why Obama is travelling to Israel:
1) The president is said to have grown tired, during the campaign last year, of hearing the question, “Why haven’t you visited Israel yet?”
2) During the first term, Administration thinking held that there was no point in sending the President to meet with Israelis and Palestinians on their home turf unless there was real progress in negotiations. Last year, this thinking shifted: Visiting the region while it was relatively quiet, without carrying a specific political agenda, grew to seem like a smart idea, in particular because many Israelis had grown suspicious of his intentions and would therefore benefit from direct exposure to the man, rather than his caricature.
3) One other reason he’s going, of course, is Iran. There’s nothing like a face-to-face with Netanyahu to keep the prime minister onboard with Administration strategy
Swinging back to pessimism, Barry Rubin explains why Obama’s concept of the Middle East will fail:
Let’s begin by discussing the idea that Israel must persuade the Arab public:–The question should be posed as this: When will the Arab public, or Arab governments, show Israel they are serious about peace? In 2009 when Obama sought such assurances and demonstrations he was turned down flat. We know it and he should know it.–How long a list do you want of the times Israel has shown the Arab public that it wants peace seriously?–Do you think the Arab public cares or is going to be persuaded by any such behavior?–Hundreds of Israelis died in the 1993-2000 period in the effort to show the Arab public Israel was serious about peace.
The idea that Israel needs to persuade its neighbors to accept its existence is a line we have heard almost daily since the 1980s or even 1970s. Yet curiously the Arab street pays no attention to the scores of such Israeli gestures and the West soon forgets each one.
[...]What does Obama intend to convey by this idea? It seems as if he is saying: You better act now while the relatively friendly dictator Bashar al-Assad is running Syria before the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists take power! But that is absurd. How about: You better act now before we pass the window of opportunity of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood regime being eager for comprehensive peace with Israel? You better act fast before Hamas (which rules the Gaza Strip) and Hizballah (which rules Lebanon) change to a more hostile attitude?What better time to make risky concessions than when the security situation is deteriorating and the new rulers of your neighbors are baying for your blood?