Obama in Israel: Let the fence mending begin


An Orthodox Jewish man walks past a banner on March 13, 2013 in Jerusalem.


Ahmad Gharabli

JERUSALEM — Israel's annual high octane gathering of its political and military elites, liberally salted with foreign guests from the deep bench of international policy and analytic thought, is usually held in January. The Herzliya Conference, as it is called, hosted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as its keynoter in 2012.

This year, the conference became a victim of politics.

Israel's suddenly advanced elections postponed this year's powwow to March when, entirely unexpectedly, its Israeli guests found themselves detained by a last-minute coalition-building endgame that had not yet been resolved by the conference's end (and, almost, by the end of the eight-week deadline mandated by law). No one could commit.

As a result, in 2013 there was no keynoter, and the main topic of discussion by panelists from both sides of the Atlantic turned to the imminent visit of US President Barack Obama.

Obama's two-day trip, during which he'll address 2,000 Israeli university students, is seen as a counterpart to his 2009 speech in Cairo, which was focused on repairing relations with the Muslim world. The speech alluded to the Holocaust as an injustice committed against Jews but made no reference to native Jewish life in the Middle East. Israelis bristled at being left out of that tour, and feared a new president who didn't appreciate their claims to the land.

The upcoming visit — which includes symbolic and much-touted trips to the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2,000 year old documents testifying to Jewish statehood in the Judean desert, and a wreath-laying ceremony at the graves of Theodore Herzl, the father of the Jewish State, and Yitzhak Rabin, the father of the Olso peace process — is seen as a stay against any possible erosion of the American-Israeli relationship.

Analysts across political persuasions and allegiances said they expect the trip, which begins Wednesday, to be a resounding success. Conference participants drew a confident picture of a workmanlike visit aimed at repairing dinged fences and bringing new life to long established ties. And yes, as befits any group of analysts, they expressed some anxiety about the future in a series of interviews with GlobalPost.

“Watch and see," said Uzi Arad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's former national security adviser. "There are absolutely no concerns. Obama will find spontaneous sympathy for him and America. Israel is the most pro-American country in the world and the president will see it."

Brian Katulis, senior fellow at Washington's Center for American Progress, expects a "sober, more practical approach aligned with the situation today."

The situation today, as held by a consensus of experts here, is a dangerous world in which Muslim fundamentalism is on the rise, violent weapons are not necessarily accounted for, and a perception of diminished American involvement in world affairs. Iran's nuclear ambitions and the disintegration of Arab countries swept by the Arab Spring — in this conference referred to as the Islamist Winter — will take top billing.

"Egypt is a failed state, Palestine is a failed state in the making, Syria is imploding, Lebanon — well, blank. And Jordan's stability is very important," said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat, summing things up.

Another issue, relevant both to the upcoming visit and regionally, is ongoing Israeli settlement building in the West Bank. Katulis said that while Obama is unlikely to repeat “first term mistakes” — like when the president gave Netanyahu an ultimatum to freeze all settlement building, which was all but ignored — there wouldn’t be any change in the 40-year-old US policy of opposing settlement building.

"It does not help Israel's standing in the West when they talk about building in E1," Pinkas said, referring to the Israeli government's plans to build more settlements in a particularly delicate area of desert just outside Jerusalem. "When you require as much international support on Iran as Israel does, this is the last thing you want to do."

Iran remains the game-changing golem in all discussions on the Middle East.

American and Israeli statements in recent months indicate a new alignment of the two countries’ analysis of the risk Iran poses. In a pre-trip interview Obama granted to Israel’s Channel 2, for instance, the president said the Iranian capacity to produce a nuclear bomb is about a year away and would be a “red line” for the United States, borrowing a phrase used by Netanyahu to indicate the moment when military action becomes necessary.

Arad, the former national security adviser, dismissed those who believe any military attack would provoke a regional war. In particular, he said, when compared to Bush-era American wars in the region, the matter of Iran is much simpler.

"The options are surgical," he said, emphasizing that all diplomatic avenues should be exhausted before any military operation. "The United States was eager when it came to 'changing hearts and minds,' but here we are talking only about facilities, and facilities, they can be impacted by bombs."

Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy under Bush, said he thinks Obama will do what’s necessary to demonstrate compassion for Israel’s position in the region.

"The president will absolutely deliver the message to Israelis that he gets it. That is the main goal. He'll tell Israelis, 'I understand and I am your friend and we will face these challenges together.'"

James Woolsey, who was CIA director under President Bill Clinton and a witness to most of the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, said not much had changed since the mid-90s, "except Iran has gotten closer and closer to a bomb."

Woolsey's hopes for a renewed peace process, a sort of Oslo II, are in "suspended animation at best because of a total lack of Palestinian willingness to be reasonable," he said, echoing the disappointment of many Clinton officials, and Clinton himself, who blamed then-Palestinian President Yasser Arafat for the ultimate failure of the Olso process.

Clinton, who devoted much of his foreign policy to an Israeli-Palestinian peace and hoped for a final agreement before he left office, said that Arafat balked before signing a treaty to which he had agreed, and felt personally betrayed by the second intifada, during which certain Palestinian factions turned to terror against Israeli civilian targets.

The heightened sense of preparedness in anticipation of Obama's first state visit highlights another, less urgent interest — the US-Israel relationship itself. According to Pinkas, it is a relationship that is undergoing natural changes, and for which Israel bears much responsibility.

"North Korea and Pakistan are just as high up on the American president's agenda as Iran, and ought to be," he said.

"There has not been a cold war since 1992. Israel is neither the strategic asset nor the liability many in Washington depict it to be. But what if Iran is neutralized and is a non-issue by 2015? What then are the basic tenets that would facilitate the US-Israel relationship? Israel, as the junior party in this relationship, has to be the one who has to figure it out."