Obama in Route to Israel: "Shalom Chaverim"

Monday, March 18, 2013

President Obama deftly executed his own advance work ahead of his first presidential visit to Israel later this week.  First, he met with key Jewish and Arab-American leaders at the White House; he then granted exclusive interviews to regional media, including Israel's Channel 2.   His message in a nutshell:  "Shalom Chaverim" (in Hebrew either "Hello my friends" or "Peace! My friends").   Given the limited goals of his visit, BOTH iterations apply.

For a visit that has such profound importance for his hosts, Obama's trip will be high on symbolism and low on expectations.  Facing escalating regional threats, Israelis know all too well that Obama's fundamental attitude to Israel is vital to its security, which is why there is such heartburn over Netanyahu's dysfunctional relationship with the American president. In deference to this reality, the president will go to great lengths to reassure Israelis directly of his unyielding support for their safety and security, and that the U.S. has their back.  Most vital to Israelis, he will reiterate what he has pledged repeatedly to American audiences; namely that the U.S. will act to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.  But, as he reiterates these commitments, Obama will also urge his Israeli audiences to take a long hard look at what a failed peace process means to Israel's next generations.    

Having judged the prospects for any meaningful resumption of the peace process bleak at best, Obama told anyone and everyone: Do not expect the U.S. to unveil any new angelic grandiose strategy that could compel or coerce either party back to the table.  

Who can blame the president for not producing the umpteenth U.S. peace plan?

After all, despite his administration's best intention and genuine commitment, he was roundly rebuffed by both Israelis and Palestinians from the get-go.  Neither side has budged one inch closer to a deal since the signing of the Oslo Accords 20 years ago, which were intended to serve as a flight path to final status negotiations.  Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart today as ever.  Blame whom you will, and there is plenty of blame to go around on both sides.  Today, there isn't a soul alive who could claim with a straight face that the "rest in peace process" needs just another presidential kickstart from the U.S.  What is now true is that the relatively peaceful condition on the ground has created a malaise in a process that is now robbed of any urgency.

So why go?

Even if expectations for anything resembling a breakthrough are bleak, weary U.S. diplomats realize all too well that down the road looms an even uglier confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians.  If they give up negotiating a two-state solution, each side will take unilateral measures that may trigger yet another intifada, the return of  Hamas-fueled terrorism on the West Bank.  Where that leads is anyone's guess.  

True, the once all-consuming Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer the centerpiece to a stable Middle East now buffeted by Sunni-Shiite civil wars and Islamist takeovers.  But "Professor" Obama will use his visit to urge each side to look into the mirror and deal with the realities as we see it:  a relentless settlement expansion clearly has no purpose other than undermine a Palestinian homeland, and a dysfunctional Palestinian Authority that is flirting with Hamas and glibly denying the  existence of Israel as a Jewish state will not find salvation by chasing mirages at the UN.

And what, pray tell, is Prime Minister Netanyahu doing to alleviate Washington's concerns?          

When it comes to Palestinians, it is an Israeli maxim that all politics is local.

Fresh from a bruising "15 rounder" coalition formation battle, Netanyahu gave away the keys of the all-powerful settlement construction Housing Ministry to the ultra-right wing Habayit Hayehudi coalition headed by Naftali Bennett.   Moreover, the so-called Coalition Agreement (one needs a sorcerer to decipher it) does not even mention the peace process.  And given Bennett's stranglehold on Netanyahu's slim eight-seat majority in the Knesset, don't count on Netanyahu making any tangible gestures to the Palestinians anytime soon.
In his heart, Netanyahu would prefer the U.S. just leave him alone and walk away from its 30+ year diplomatic investment in  peace-making and focus like a laser beam on the growing threat posed by Iran's nuclear weapons program and the fallout from the Syrian civil war.

But Obama, along with many Israelis, knows that the status quo is dangerous.  Perhaps the president will be able to convince even more Israelis of that reality and that they, rather than the U.S., will be the peace game-changers.  But given the makeup of Israel's new coalition government, Mr. Netanyahu has conveniently boxed himself in.

Shalom, President Obama.
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