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Lowering the bar of expectations for Obamas Israel visit

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This spring,  recently re-elected President Barack Obama will visit Israel, to be hosted by the recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Doubtless, every journalist present will be watching both leaders for uneasy body language or facial tics, 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.

Unfortunately,  important strategic differences remain between the two countries, and one visit alone is unlikely to resolve them.

The topics, in order of priority, begin with Iran. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has, as expected, rejected the Obama administration’s proposal for direct talks on its nuclear program. 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. A former nuclear negotiator, he is, like Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust denier who regularly rants about his desire to destroy Israel. Unless Obama can persuade Netanyahu that the sanctions 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.

Next is Syria, where President Bashar Assad’s slaughter of his own population continues unabated. America’s lack of leadership over the Syrian crisis, which contrasts markedly with France’s intervention against Islamist terrorists in Mali, has piled doubt upon the endless predictions that Assad’s regime is in its final days. Assad’s ire has again turned upon Israel, following an air strike in early February against what was reported to be a military research center near Damascus. All of this has increased the instability on Israel’s northern frontier.

Egypt and potentially the rest of North Africa will be on the agenda, given 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 Mohammed 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 therefore a strong Egyptian military is a useful counterweight to the Islamists.

Finally, along with visiting Israel, Obama will visit the Palestinian Authority, which promises to be a far bigger headache. In Ramallah, Obama will face a Palestinian leadership whose current modus operandi is to isolate diplomatically, 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.

The Palestinian question is not the key to stability in the Middle East. Right now, a Palestinian state alongside Israel will satisfy no one. Arab and Muslim radicals will denounce any hint of a deal as treachery, leaving PA President Mahmoud Abbas with little room for maneuvering.

The wisest way of approaching Obama’s visit, then, is to do so without expectations. 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.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman analyst for jns.org, where this piece first appeared. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have appeared in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and other publications.