Sunday, March 31, 2013

President Obama’s visit to Israel: A public engagement to please Israel

Daily Sun
March 31st., 2013
M. Serajul Islam

President Obama’s just completed a three day visit to Israel that was a standout for two reasons. First, it was his first overseas trip after his re-election. Second, it was his first to Israel as President. That a US President would spend a whole first term and not visit its closest ally in the Middle East once (this apart, Israel’s importance to USA both in domestic and foreign affairs contexts is unquestioned) was unbelievable but true. Nevertheless, it was also surprising that he chose this ally for his first overseas visit on his second term because of the poor personal relationship that the two demonstrated in the last four years each has been in charge of his respective country.

In fact, so poor was the relationship that Prime Minister Netanyahu openly supported Governor Mitt Romney when he contested in the last presidential election against President Obama. President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s publicly demonstrated dislike for each other was a main focus of the international media in the context of USA-Israel relations and news from the region. In his first term, President Obama did something that the Israelis thought was even worse.

When he went to Egypt in 2009 and made what he expected to be a landmark visit to heal the wounds on the Muslim world that President Bush’s war on terror had inflicted, he ignored the Israelis. The fact that he travelled from Cairo to Germany after the speech to underscore the holocaust was more objectionable as it undermined Israel’s biblical and historical claim to statehood. This time, the President did a reverse of the Cairo trip of his first term. He ignored the Palestinians almost totally except for a  meeting with the Palestinian President and the Prime Minister and that too, to remind them to do things the Israelis would want.

In retrospect, the visit did not achieve much on substance. It however achieved a lot to make the Israelis and Prime Minister Netanyahu happy. President Obama corrected what the Israelis were upset about in his first term, his failure to stress Israeli’s biblical and historical claims on its present territory. Thus immediately upon alighting from Air Force One, he said at the airport ceremony: “More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people prayed here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish state of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history.” He also visited the grave Theodor Hertezl the 19th century Hungarian Jew who envisioned building Israel on Palestinian land (but avoided visiting the grave of Yassir Arafat) and viewed an exhibition of Dead Sea Scrolls to please Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

The President’s irport  speech set the theme of his visit which was to correct the mistakes of his first term and to get on the right side of the Israelis and also of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Every program of the visit was carefully designed to achieve this objective. In fact, so unabashedly and overtly did Present Obama try to please the Israeli Prime Minister that Washington Post commented that “the unusual degree of solidarity” between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu was “either a turn in their vital if volatile relationship or a cool tactical display of diplomatic theater.”

Whatever be the real reasons behind the President’s move towards Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu, he was able to make his case of appeasement to both a strong one. This was evidently visible from the public display of warmth between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Apart from their broad smiles, the two went to make personal references to each other’s family that also did not fail to catch the eye of everyone. When President Obama made references to the sons of Benjamin Netanyahu as having taken their handsome looks from their mother, the Israeli Prime Minister quickly responded, “I could say the same of your daughters! These very personal exchanges took place while the President visited the residence of the Israeli Prime Minister that in itself was crafted into the schedule as a “tactical display of diplomatic theatre.”

Nevertheless, the two sides also did not waste the opportunity of discussing the main issues of concern between the two countries. The most important of these was their past differences on Iran. President Obama was able to convince his host to relent on his country’s intention to attack Iran to take out its nuclear capabilities on the assumption that it had crossed the “red line” to give diplomacy a chance. The Israeli Prime Minister said that he thought “there’s a misunderstanding about time. If Iran decides to go for a nuclear weapon — that is, to actually manufacture the weapon — then it will take them about a year.”

In return, the President committed his administration to provide US$ 200 million for the Iron Dome system that proved very successful in dealing with the missiles and rockets from Hammas recently. The President said that “Israel’s security needs are truly unique” and in that context stressed that he and the Israeli prime Minister would start talks to extend USA’s military aid commitment to Israel after it expired in 2017. 

Analysts are still unsure whether the public display of warmth of the two leaders was genuine. Nevertheless, they felt that the change of stand of Israel on “the red line” would create pressure upon Iran to convince its leaders that it is, as President Obama has suggested on this visit to Israel, not in their interest to pursue the option to build the nuclear bomb. This was the major concession that President Obama was able to get from the Israelis. The President was also able to get a commitment from the Israeli Prime Minister for the “two state” solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict but for a heavy price in the asking. These apart, it was President Obama that made the concessions and commitments and public displays of the importance of Israel to the United States to please Israel a lot of it at the expense of the Palestinians.

He called upon the Palestinians to go for the peace talks that was held only briefly during the entire first term of President Obama by withdrawing their demand on stopping the illegal settlements. In this call, the US President’s commitment in his first term to the Palestinians to back their legitimate claim for return of Palestine land to pre-1967 borders with also a claim on a part of Jerusalem was forgotten.  Although the new US Secretary of State John Kerry was on the visit and the President said that he would guide the peace talks between the two sides, he did not suggest any plan to start the peace talks. He did of course make some references to issues in the talks that have all been favourable to the Israelis and none to the Palestinians. 

Thus the US President’s visit to Israel was little more than a public relations exercise to please the Israelis and his domestic constituents. It will do very little to encourage the Palestinian to hope for a resolution to their sad and unfortunate predicament. President Obama has given Israel the historical and biblical stamp of legitimacy that Israel wanted, mostly at the expense of the Palestinians who have been left at the mercy of the Israelis. To the Muslim world that was encouraged by President Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009, this visit was a perfect U-turn, an “insult” as a prominent Arab scholar Dr. Ghada Karimi stated. Perhaps this was a pay back to the Palestinians for displeasing the United States with their UN initiative last year towards statehood.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Egypt and the Chairman, CFAS

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