It was quite a scene last night watching President Barack Obama step off of Air Force One in Israel, stroll down the red carpet laid out for him and a hug from the very man who most likely was most disappointed he got a second-term last November – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Put aside the White House spin that the two nations have witnessed an ever-closer military relationship (pure nonsense). The reality is the president didn’t even bother to visit the country during his entire first four-year-term.
He made it over to Turkey, a NATO ally and Egypt, under the rule now of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has now sold more F-16 fighter aircraft to without even knowing what the new government plans to do concerning their peace truce with Israel signed in 1979.
What was going through the mind of Netanyahu as Obama strode down the plane’s steps? Was he thinking this should have been his close friend and former business partner, Mitt Romney?
With all the hugs and kisses it is hard to know, but Americans can be certain Israelis would sleep better at night had Obama been defeated. A poll in the Maariv daily newspaper (Israel) last March 15 showed 68 percent of Israelis had a “highly unfavorable” or outright hostile attitude toward Obama.
Ten percent of those polled said they liked him.
No one is expecting any new initiative to arise towards the Palestinians during this trip. Obama will spend the majority of the official visit in Israel with few minor side trips that include meetings with the Palestinian Authority.
During his Israeli stay he will make a keynote speech to hundreds of students. He will also hold separate talks with both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is now in a position of power after the recent Israeli elections where his party was able to form a coalition for ultimate power in the country.
So what can actually become news on what appears to be a public relations visit? Both Israel and the United States have already agreed Iran will not be “allowed” to build an atomic bomb.
That being said, they disagree on the semantics of the agreement. The two countries differ concerning how close Iran is to developing such a weapon. Naturally the Israelis feel the time is far nearer for action than the United States.
Netanyahu famously announced the "red line" for Iran's nuclear program at the U.N. last October when Obama famously declined to meet with him in New York. Netanyahu’s contention with the Iranians is, if the Islamic Republic obtains over 240 kg (530 pounds) of 20-percent enriched uranium, the time has come for extreme action – namely military.
Israelis see Iran's nuclear advances as something of an existential threat. Obviously they make no secret about it with the U.S. military. They know that by the day Teheran is modifying its defense capabilities for any Israeli air strike that would be launched to destroy their nuclear infrastructure.
With Obama’s present state of mind concerning the Iranian threat, Israel would obviously be initially (at least) left alone to strike back. Does Netanyahu relish the fact that he is put in the position of being so reliant on Obama and the U.S. foreign policy?
That answer is obvious.
So what does Obama bring to Netanyahu of any substance? He will most likely encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to return to the negotiating table. No new idea here. Yet Obama has told American Jewish leaders in private long before this visit he had no intention to present "grand peace plan."
But he added that does not preclude presenting such a plan in the next six months as the clock continues to tick down on the Iranian crisis that is inevitably coming.
Remember the hugs and kisses on the red carpet?
This visit sets a new tone for the Obama administration. In the president’s first term, he claimed peace between the Palestinians and Israelis was his “number one priority.” Yet, at the same time he announced that policy, he began his "new beginning" in 2009 in Cairo.
It sent a thunderous response through the world of the Palestinians that this new president was their “friend.” He hoped to find ground for the two opponents to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War.
That notion soon collapsed in the peace talks of 2010 when they collapsed after Netanyahu angrily refused to submit to Palestinian demands to extend a partial freeze on settlement building.
Both sides say walked away furious with the new president. It only proved further that without a serious U.S. engagement, the chances of a deal are close to zero.
The most contentious point in the decades-old crisis is Israeli settlements in what is now considered Palestinian territory. Netanyahu refuses to budge on his position while the president attempts to sooth his fears of a nation surrounded by sworn enemies. Most major powers regard settlements as illegal under international law and an impediment to peace. Yet the Israelis claim historical and biblical ties to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. It is basically the same arguments that have gone on through the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush presidencies. Sixty-five years of cold and hot war between Israel and the rest of the region in one way or another.
Since 1967, Israeli leaders have supported the settlement movement - Netanyahu especially supportive. He envisions it as a bargaining chip and more and more leave the negotiating table over the years.
Yuval Steinitz, who was replaced as finance minister last Friday, said in November the government had quietly doubled the portion of the national budget dedicated to West Bank settlements.
It is no secret that this intransigence by Netanyahu, 63, and Obama, 51, has been scarred with diplomatic rudeness, mutual suspicion, and public rebuke by both sides. Anyone who doesn’t think Netanyahu was in the tank with Mitt Romney is not up on their Middle East politics.
Yet, one thinks of the stark reality; the annual U.S. military aid to Israel is put at around $3 billion. That’s an expensive commitment for a president playing it so close to the vest with America’s most reliable ally in the entire region.
The discussion of President Mubarak’s fall from power in Egypt, only to be replaced by a government led by the Muslim Brotherhood, will be an emotional discussion with the Israelis. Gone are the days of a peaceful truce with Anwar Sadat and Mubarak replaced by the unknown.
Although it is common knowledge the U.S. provided the Egyptians with billions in foreign aid, the Israelis are incensed that the American government did virtually nothing to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood’s march to power. Obama claims there was little that could be done to a dubious Israeli cabinet.
It’s Obama taking center stage now in international relations. This is far different from offering drone strikes.
In this case, the president has to look his allies’ right in the eyes.
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