What to Expect When Obama Visits Israel
Jodi Rudoren, the New York Times Israel correspondent, wrote about President Barack Obama’s March 20-22 visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority:
For more than two years, many Israeli and Palestinian leaders have placed blame for their stalemated peace process not only on one another but on a lack of engagement by the Obama Administration. But now that President Obama and his new secretary of state have signaled plans to visit, both sides still remain skeptical that much will change.
While I’m grateful that she concluded with what I’ve been saying now for about thirteen years -- no progress is going to be made and every knowledgeable person on both sides knows it -- I am baffled by the beginning. I have never heard any Israeli or Palestinian leader or intellectual or just plain individual say such a thing. It is nonsense, given the fact that Obama’s strenuous efforts during his first two years in office got nowhere.
The history of what actually happened between 2009 and 2011 has been forgotten, just as the Palestinian torpedoing of peace between 1993 and 2000 has been forgotten. Obama tried, the Arab states wouldn’t help, the Palestinians threw pie in his face (as I wrote at the time), and Israel offered full cooperation. Since then, the Palestinian Authority is strutting with its newly received -- from the UN General Assembly -- state. Contrary to the 1993 Oslo agreement, this was achieved without any compromise, concessions, or agreement with Israel. So on top of everything else, the PA feels no motivation to negotiate anymore, not that it did much since 2000. But should we all try? Sure, just don't do any more damage, and in your own interest don't waste too much time and money.
All of this should be merely academic, since we are told that Obama's visit will focus on Syria and Iran. So what does Israel want to tell Obama, and what is he likely to offer or do?
Syria: Presumably, Israel’s leadership will express a consensus view that its main concern is not who governs Syria but how they behave.
There’s no sympathy for the Bashar al-Assad dictatorship, which has long sponsored terrorism against Israel. In addition, it is widely recognized that the regime’s fall is a defeat for Iran, which would be losing its principal ally. The situation has also opened gaps between Iran and Turkey, which has been very friendly toward Iran (a point that the Obama administration has ignored). And if Israel ever did attack Iranian nuclear installations, an anti-Iran Sunni-ruled Syrian regime is less likely to do anything in response.
In addition to all that, a successful revolution would weaken Hizballah in Lebanon, which at the moment is the biggest threat on Israel’s borders (Hamas is more likely to attack, but less capable of doing serious damage), and can well mean that the Lebanese terrorist group will be too busy and insecure to renew the kind of attacks seen in 2006 and earlier years.
Yet what will replace the current government of Syria? Israel will stress that it worries about a Muslim Brotherhood regime that will try to step up the conflict with Israel, including backing its own terrorist clients in Lebanon and Hamas. Another point -- which the Obama administration doesn’t seem to comprehend (though some of its officials worry about this) -- is that such a regime would be permissive toward Salafist groups wanting to attack Israel across the border, along with a high degree of anarchy in that part of southern Syria having the same effect.
Israel will also warn that lots of weapons, including some very advanced ones, are pouring into Syria and will not be secured after the civil war ends. They will end up in the hands of terrorists to whom they are either sold or given. The terrorist could even be directly armed by the American-Turkish-Qatari-Saudi strategy. They might point to Libya as an example of this process. Perhaps some future U.S. ambassador to Syria and other operatives will be murdered trying to get some of those weapons back.
The U.S. government will talk about the prospects for democracy in Syria, how the Muslim Brotherhood there is going to be moderate and pragmatic, and how the aim of U.S. policy is to use the Brotherhood to restrain the Salafists.
Israeli officials will be very polite in discussions, and sarcastic when they talk among themselves afterward. The two countries' interests may not clash, but their perceptions of how to promote those interests do. The United States will help install in Syria a regime that is likely to be hardline anti-Israel and might well form an alliance with Egypt and Hamas, try to destabilize Jordan, and give help and weapons to anti-Israel terrorists. That might be an improvement over what exists now, but American help to Syrian moderates would have been far preferable. Israel is very much aware of the new danger from Syria.
Hopefully there will be some discussion over Egypt. Obama will emphasize that the peace treaty has not been renounced and that the Brotherhood regime is, at least for the moment, blocking the flow of weapons into the Gaza Strip. Israel will say thank you and talk about how this needs to continue, and about its worries that the new Egyptian government will get more militant on foreign policy once it entrenches itself in power.
Iran: Presumably, the U.S. delegation and Obama will emphasize their optimism about negotiations with Tehran and express wishful thinking that the June election will result in a more moderate government after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad leaves office. In other words, they will preach hope and patience.
In addition, they will stress that all options are being kept open and that the United States will never accept Iran having nuclear weapons. How the U.S. government is going to stop this is quite unclear. Personally, I don’t believe that Obama will ever attack Iranian nuclear facilities or support such an Israeli operation.
I’m not saying he should do so; I’m just predicting he won’t do so.
There might also be talk about covert operations, perhaps even based on U.S.-Israel cooperation, and intelligence-gathering efforts on Iran’s drive to obtain nuclear weapons.
What’s not clear is how much Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will emphasize the idea of an attack on Iranian facilities. Presumably, he will say that he is happy to give the United States and other Western countries time to try non-military means, including sanctions. He will warn them that negotiations won’t work. He might say something to the effect that Israel will wait out 2013, but when 2014 comes and Iran’s drive continues, that would be the moment for a military response.
The reality is, however, that Obama will continue to deny that his strategy is one of containing Iran; rather he will say that his goal is preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That will go on until Iran gets nuclear weapons and Obama switches to a containment strategy.
It might be too early to discuss -- and Israel might not want to do so lest it reduce potential U.S. support for an attack -- but it is important to understand that there's good containment and bad containment. On that point I need say only two words: Chuck Hagel. He is U.S. secretary of defense. Want four more words? John Kerry, John Brennan. They are secretary of state and CIA chief. The problem of terrible ideas meets terrible incompetence.
Just as the issue is not that Obama hasn't tried hard enough on the "peace process" -- he tried, failed, and will fail if he tries again -- the issue is not that Obama is "anti-Israel." The latter problem is that his Arab and Islamist strategy is damaging toward Israel, as it is also to long-term U.S. interests, regional stability, Christians, women, moderates, and others.
Equally, the problem is not that the Obama administration hasn't been trying to stop Iran's nuclear program, but that its efforts won't work and its approach is wasting time. So what comes next?
If the United States is going to end up focusing on containing Iran -- stopping it from using nuclear weapons or giving them to terrorists -- it better be done well. As for containing Iran strategically, the Egyptian and Syrian revolutions are largely doing that job.
At the end of the meeting, everyone will then state publicly that the talks show the continued strength of the U.S.-Israel alliance and that Obama is a great president and a wonderful friend of Israel. Then Obama will return to Washington to get back to the business of installing or helping anti-Israel Islamist governments in Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey; making sure Israel is never too tough against Hamas in the Gaza Strip; and losing credibility with America's anti-Islamist Arab and other friends.
As I've been saying for four years, most of America's allies are unhappy. When Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in Afghanistan, President Karzai spoke angrily of how he feels U.S. policy has shafted him and his country. Lots of other countries feel the same way.