The Meaning of Obama’s Mideast Trip

President Obama travels to Israel to deliver a message of reassurance on the alliance, but will be meeting a new government divided on the Palestinian peace process, says CFR’s Robert Danin.

March 18, 2013

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

President Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel as president aims to reassure Israelis that he is a friend, says CFR Senior Fellow Robert M. Danin. "The visit is a restoration visit, it’s a restoring of bilateral relations between the United States and Israel, and between the United States and the Palestinian Authority," says Danin, speaking from Israel. Still, he says, there are very low expectations from the Palestinian side about the visit, which will also include Jordan. Danin notes that the new Israeli government that was formed on the eve of Obama’s visit is such a broad coalition that there are major pitfalls for Prime Minister Netanyahu, especially on the Palestinian issue.

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President Obama makes his first trip to Israel as president, arriving on Wednesday. He will meet a new Israeli government with many new faces, but one with Benjamin Netanyahu still serving as prime minister. Is it an important trip or more of a good will mission?

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The president wanted to come to Israel early in his presidency and early in the new prime ministership of Benjamin Netanyahu before there would be a sense that he needed to produce an outcome from the visit. Early on in his term and the term of the new Israeli government he could come to really recalibrate the bilateral relationship, and that’s really what this visit is about. It’s an opportunity to re-orient the relationship after a very rocky first term for the president. He’s coming to help convince the Israeli people that he actually is a friend of Israel. That said, there are issues to discuss with the Israeli government, and there are three key issues that he wants to talk about with the Israelis. First and foremost is Iran; second are the developments in Syria; and third are the traditional issues of peace with the Palestinians.

Let’s talk about Iran. Netanyahu is not very happy with the results of recent nuclear talks in Kazakhstan, although others seemed more upbeat about the talks because they’re going to meet again on April 5. What is your sense on the two sides’ view on Iran?

The public message from the president is: "People of Israel, I understand the threat; I am on top of this, don’t worry, trust me." The private message to the Israeli government is: "Don’t jam me, give me time, I’m pursuing both very rigorous sanctions and other means towards pressuring the Iranians and I’m exploring whether or not there’s a deal to be had."

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The public message from the president is: ’People of Israel, I understand the threat; I am on top of this, don’t worry, trust me.’

And on Syria, there’s not much difference, is there?

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No. Syria is actually one where there are a lot of analytical and operational convergences. There are some operational concerns about Syria’s weapons of mass destruction, and the effect that Syria’s civil war is having on the rest of the region. The Israelis are primarily worried about Syria’s WMDs falling into the wrong hands, as well as the refugee issue and the humanitarian crisis now that more than a million refugees have been created by the bloodshed and civil war. Given that Israel is Syria’s neighbor and there has already been some spillover from Syria onto its neighbors, there’s a lot to talk about it with the United States, even if there aren’t great policy differences. Indeed, the Israelis share many of the Obama administration’s concerns about radical elements within the Syrian opposition and what will happen to Syria in the post-Assad era.

Let’s talk now a bit more about Palestinian peace talks, which got nowhere in the first term of Obama’s presidency. There’s now a new government taking over in Israel. Do you get the sense in Israel that there is a desire for more flexibility?

When it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, the United States has significantly downplayed this issue and lowered expectations, so that nobody is expecting the president to come here with a plan or even any sort of initiative to move forward. He’s going to likely stress the importance of this issue in his public remarks, but in private discussions I don’t think he’s going to present a plan although he may outline some aspirations for his second term and some steps that he’d like to see both sides take in the short term to try to improve the environment and get back to negotiations.

But the visit is a restoration visit; it’s a restoring of bilateral relations between the United States and Israel, and between the United States and the Palestinian Authority. One thing that’s very interesting is that the president is going to visit the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, and that’s a very symbolic and a very important move. One of the criticisms leveled against the president is that in his previous speeches, he always rooted his discussions about Israel in terms of the Holocaust, and Israel as the haven for the Jewish people as a result of the Holocaust. Israelis took issue with this, because they felt that it shortchanged the real, more fundamental reason for Israel, which is the connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. And by visiting the Dead Sea scrolls, which is the most tangible physical manifestation of the ancient Jewish presence in the land of Israel, he’s shifting the narrative and acknowledging that in fact Israel was about the Jewish people’s connection to this area, and not just as a safe haven from persecution in the twentieth century.

Is there any indication from the American side that they have now altered their views of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which in the first term led to constant fights with the Israelis?

Settlements have been an issue between the United States and every Israeli government, and the American position has treated the settlements as everything from illegal to unhelpful. And the degree to which Israel and the United States have agreed to disagree on this has varied, but there’s always been a core disagreement about the issue of settlement activity.

What is the mood of the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas?

There’s no excitement really about the president’s visit. Again, this is the product of the United States successfully lowering expectations, so I’d characterize the Palestinian public mood—and I did visit the West Bank and meet with Palestinian leaders and people—as largely apathetic about the visit at the popular level. At the governmental level there’s always a hope that the visit will invigorate a renewed effort.

And he’s going to Jordan also. Is the Jordan trip an important visit?

For Jordan this visit is very important. I’ve spoken to Jordanian officials about it and it comes on the heels of Jordan just having finished a new election and the king unfurling a whole series of reform measures. In many ways the visit is meant to pay tribute to Jordan for having undertaken these reform efforts, as well as recognizing the economic pressures that Jordan faces—the fact that Jordan is on the frontline with Syria and facing a real serious challenge as a result of the influx of thousands of refugees. And finally, to reassure the Jordanians that the United States is still very attentive to the peace process, which is something the Jordanians are very concerned about because they are always fearful that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians will somehow spill over and affect their own stability.

Let’s talk about the new Israeli government, because besides Netanyahu, it’s led by two younger public faces that most Americans don’t know anything about. One is Yahir Lapid and the other is Naftali Bennett.

We are seeing a fascinating story unfold. The Israeli elections were held on

January 22, and in the intervening two months there’s been an effort to put together a coalition government. And what happened was that the two parties—Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid, and HaBait Yehudi, the Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett—formed an alliance after the election against Netanyahu. In putting themselves together they exerted a great deal of pressure on Netanyahu and were successful in extracting major concessions in terms of the government formation. What’s so interesting about it is that these two parties represent an alliance between secular middle class Israel and what I call the national religious Israelis. Yair Lapid is the liberal, and Naftali Bennett represents the national religious camp, the people who are religious and right wing but who are very much part of the Israeli mainstream—distinct from the ultra-Orthodox, who do not participate in Israeli national life; they do not go to the Army, and many of them do not work. They really live outside of the Israeli mainstream and yet reap many of the benefits of being part of Israel.

You have a government that has formed an alliance about the need to address some of Israel’s social problems, the biggest agenda item being to equalize responsibility for national service.

So what you have now is a government that does not have the ultra-Orthodox in it for the first time in over ten years. You have this alliance that was formed between a center-left secular party under Lapid and a right-wing nationalist religious but modern Orthodox party of the right against Netanyahu. What that means is that you have a government that has formed an alliance about the need to address some of Israel’s social problems, the biggest agenda item being to equalize responsibility for national service and national participation. The effort is to try to pass legislation that will require the ultra-Orthodox to do national service in the army or elsewhere, and to really bear their share of the burden. This is kind of a victory for middle Israel, if you will.

What’s interesting is that when it comes to foreign policy you have inside the coalition a huge range of opinions. So whereas the previous Israeli government had been solidly right-wing, this is a government that is much more diverse It means that you have the Likud Party that Netanyahu heads, which has become more hawkish and right-wing, but also Lapid, who insisted that one of his requirements to come into the coalition was the reinvigoration of the peace process with the Palestinians. You also have the party headed by Tzipi Livni, who ran on a platform of a two-state solution with the Palestinians. So there’s going to be a real tension inside the government between Netanyahu’s own party, which is allied with Bennett on this issue and will be very hostile to any concessions with the Palestinians, and then Lapid and Livni on the other hand, really wanting a peace process.

Is Netanyahu stronger or weaker?

I’d say that overall, Prime Minister Netanyahu has emerged from these elections politically weaker than he had been prior to the election. The outcome of the elections was a blow to him and his party, and the fact that he’s had to make all of these concessions in forming the coalition has weakened him further. The expectation in Israel is that this government is not going to be durable. It’s going to have sixty-eight seats—you require sixty to have a majority, so sixty-eight is not that strong a majority. It means that any one party can pretty much bring down the government.


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