As Joe Biden’s plane fueled up to head in the direction of the Middle East for today’s arrival, even the most optimistic of Israelis were viewing the U.S. vice president’s trip to Israel with skepticism — and the more pessimistic anticipated his mission with outright suspicion.
Publicly, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu waxed enthusiastic and “praised” the upcoming visit by his “personal friend of 30 years,” even as a “senior diplomatic official” (presumed to be either Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman or Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon) was quoted as angrily asking why Israel must settle for second best. President Obama, the official pointed out, seems to have no trouble showing up in person to woo Arab countries — and yet he keeps his distance from Israel.
“If the president speaks to one side, why do you send the No. 2 to speak to us? He can’t give a speech in Cairo to the Arabs, and suffice with speaking to us through videos.”
The answer isn’t complicated. In the Obama playbook, countries that are hostile to the U.S. deserve a charm offensive. Allies like Israel can be taken for granted. But to be fair, even the most supportive presidents have rarely graced Israel with their presence, unless there was a significant diplomatic achievement to take pride in. And at this moment in time, diplomatic progress has never seemed further from sight.
And so, with the possible exception of Netanyahu, Israelis weren’t exactly waiting for Biden’s arrival with bated breath. On Sunday’s news programs, news of preparations for his visit followed stories of multiple car accidents, coverage of crimes, and long discussions of the chances of Israel’s entry Ajami to win the Academy Award for best foreign-language film (with the mini-scandal that accompanied the entry after one of the directors, an Israeli Arab, declared that his “film shouldn’t represent Israel because Israel doesn’t represent me”).
When the hosts of the morning news shows finally got around to talking about U.S. envoy George Mitchell’s meeting on Saturday night with Defense Minister Ehud Barak to prepare the ground for the Biden arrival, they rolled their eyes and exclaimed, “Déjà vu!” Indeed, it seems as if Mitchell has been dropping in on a weekly basis as the latest Sisyphus of the peace process. His comings and goings have become part of the landscape.
The purpose of the weekend meetings was to “lay the foundations” for the “indirect talks” between Israel and the Palestinians, conveniently timed for both sides to be able to proudly point to when Biden comes and say, “Look, we’re talking!” Once upon a time, Israel and the Palestinians were actually capable of negotiating directly with each other. That ended when Palestinians Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut them off in late 2008, declaring, with the encouragement of the Arab world, that the Palestinians had nothing to say to Israel until it froze settlements. Now the Arabs have given Abbas the green light to restart talks, albeit only indirectly and only temporarily (for four months). In true dramatic Middle East fashion, the final decision on whether those talks would actually be underway when Biden’s plane touched down was only made the previous day. It took until Sunday night for the announcement to come: the PLO executive committee gave Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas the green light to participate in the talks.
The TV morning hosts imagined poor George Mitchell’s conversation with his wife: “Guess what honey — I’ve been working non-stop for a year and look what I’ve achieved. I’ve convinced people who live ten minutes apart to agree! But not to each other. Only to me. I get to run back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah in a game of telephone. Lucky me.”
So despite the hype that the Obama administration is trying to work up around the restart of negotiations, it would take a major effort under any circumstances to get anybody to work up excitement about what are called “indirect talks,” or, as they are called in official lingo, “proximity talks.”
Despite the bleak prospects for a real breakthrough, Israel will do its best to court Biden. During his time in Israel, he is set to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, and President Shimon Peres. A trip to Ramallah will bring him to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Though the public face of the visit will focus on the peace process, it is clear that the truly intense discussions, particularly behind closed doors, will surround the ever-troubling question of what is to be done about Iran and its nuclear threat. Biden is only the latest in a recent parade of U.S. officials to come to Israel in what are viewed as hand-holding missions — to try to restrain Israel from taking military action against Iran and give U.S.-led sanctions a chance.
Biden will be the highest-ranking of several senior U.S. civilian and military officials who have traveled to Israel in the past six weeks to make sure Washington and Jerusalem are “on the same page” on Iran, as John Kerry said on a trip there last week. Some of the others who have visited are Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Security Advisor Jim Jones, Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton, and Deputy Secretaries of State Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew.
The biggest question mark regarding the visit will be the content of what has been mysteriously called a “major policy speech” to be delivered at Tel Aviv University. The Jerusalem Post’s Caroline Glick suspects that the agenda of the speech will be what she sees as the underlying purpose of Biden’s entire visit: to undermine Netanyahu as prime minister.
In light of the gaping disparity between the Obama administration’s policies and those of the Israeli government, the apparent goal of Biden’s address is to shore up the position of the Israeli Left as an alternative to Netanyahu. Apparently, the picture emerging from all of the senior U.S. officials’ meetings with Netanyahu is that Israel’s leader still feels comfortable defying them. Presumably, they now believe that the only way to force him to toe their line is by making him believe that the price of defiance will be his premiership.
That mission, she concludes, is a “lost cause.”
It will take much more than a change in tone for the Obama administration to win over the Israeli public. Indeed, Obama’s open hostility towards Netanyahu has probably been a significant factor in shoring up the public’s approval of his performance in office.
The Israeli public is not interested in a change of tone — from Obama or from the Israeli Left. It is interested in a change of policy. Until it gets it, the public will in all likelihood remain loyal to Netanyahu.