UPDATE: Obama in Israel – Meets with Palestinian Leader Abbas, Then Urges Israel to Make Peace

Obama_Netanyahu

UPDATE Mar 21, 2013  12:30 pm (EDT): President Obama is now nearing the end of a very full day in Israel. Following a closed meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah (amidst noisy demonstrations outside by Palestinians who called for RPGs instead of the CIA), Obama was met by quite a different crowd back in Jerusalem – an audience of cheering Israelis at Binyanei Ha’ooma, the Jerusalem conference center. Here, in contrast to the rowdy and antagonistic mob of Palestinian demonstrators, the Israeli crowd was warm and their applause was generous. The President delivered a long and well-crafted speech, enumerating Israel’s accomplishments, and underscored his empathy for Israelis who face the threats of hostile neighbors daily. He said that the only possible solution is for Israel to make peace with her neighbors, beginning with the Palestinians, and that he honestly believes that Israel has a true partner in Abbas to make the idea of “two states for two people”become reality. He said that he believes that “peace is possible”.

“I believe that you will shape our future,” he told his young audience, “and so long as there is a United States of America, atem lo levad” (translation: “you are not alone”)

Obama Medal 2Tonight, at a state dinner for Obama, Israel’s President Shimon Peres conferred upon him Israel’s highest honor, the Presidential Medal of Distinction for his “unique contribution to the security of the State of Israel”. This was the first time in the history of bilateral relations that an Israeli President has awarded the medal to a serving US President. He referred to Obama as a “beacon of democratic values”. In an eloquent speech of acceptance, Obama spoke of the coming of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which marks their liberation from slavery in Egypt. He then drew a parallel between the Jewish experience and that of African Americans, who too were slaves and by whose side, Jews marched throughout the South in the fight for civil rights. He then graciously accepted the award on behalf of the American people.

This trip has been unique. Obama has received one of the warmest receptions Israel can offer a visiting American president. And his words to Israel were warmer and more acknowledging than any he has made before, sprinkling his remarks with short but meaningful phrases in Hebrew.

The question now will be whether the warm words spoken in Israel this week will carry over into action that will reflect a change in open policy towards Israel, or whether this will just another bit of political theater, after which his long brewing feud with Netanyahu will resurface when he is no longer a guest of the Jewish state.

In theory, there is an argument to be made for Obama’s opinion that peace is possible in the region, and the audience, made up mostly of young Israelis who are understandably tired of war, applauded enthusiastically. But it is one thing to hope and another thing to recognize the reality on the ground. The Palestinians, and most of the neighboring governments in the broadening swath of Islamist nations, are outspokenly anti-Israel, and refuse to acknowledge that Israel’s right to exist is even a question. The answer is a resounding and often a bloody “no!”. According to their own words, they want nothing more than to see the annihilation of the small Jewish state, and as soon as possible. Even today, at the joint press conference with Obama, Abbas referred in his remarks to the “the calamities of the Nakba” which refers to the creation of the state of Israel. Is this really the partner in peace to whom Obama referred?

Mostly overlooked in the press, was a comment President Obama made in response to a question at his press conference with Abbas.  The question was about how he will implement his efforts to get the peace talks moving again: “We’re going to go back and look at what we’ve heard from both sides.” he said, “and make a determination as to what has the best prospect for success.” That leaves a lot of daylight between words and actions.

So although President Obama’s words to both the Israelis and the Palestinians were lofty and welcome, their connection to reality is sharply limited by facts on the ground. One can only hope that his visit to Israel will be as life changing for him as it has been for many Americans who have traveled there before him. Israel is a magical place, taking visitors deep into the biblical past, even as it catapults them into the future of the amazing, life changing technological products, an area inwhich Israel has become a world leader.

It can be hoped that President Obama can finally live up to his Nobel Peace Prize and earn the faith that the Israeli people have placed in him – to somehow overcome the reality of the Middle East and find a way to forge a peace with which Israelis can truly live without sacrificing their security or their Jewish identity.

It’s a long shot.

UPDATE Mar 20, 2013, 3:30:00 pm (EDT):  This evening, President Obama and Israel’s PM Netanyahu met in a closed meeting, followed by a press conference. The big surprise from the press conference was the apparent warmth between the two leaders as they first each gave their statements and then fielded questions from the press. A mixture of first names and light banter left the impression that these men had never had any serious differences in the past and that their current relationship was as warm and friendly as ever.

In his entry into the guest book, Obama wrote, “It is a great honor to reaffirm the extraordinary bonds between our two countries. By every measure, from security to our economy, our cooperation has never been greater and this in part is because of the strong commitment of Prime Minister Netanyahu. May our bonds continue to grow. On behalf of our people and prosperity for all people.”

Holavai, as they say in Hebrew. May it be. But is it real and will it last?

President Obama seemed unusually relaxed and fielded hard questions deftly, while insisting on the close, strategic relationship between the US and Israel. Several times in the course of his speech and later in his answers to questions from the press, he stressed the close ties between the US and Israel, and implied a close personal friendship with Netanyahu as well, whom he referred to by his nickname, “Bibi”. The press conference centered largely on the stalled peace talks and Iranian nuclear threat. A seemingly small but significant difference between the positions of the two leaders lay in the perception of Iran’s actual capability to produce a nuclear weapon

President acknowledged that Iran is a prominent shared concern, and said, “I would not expect that the Prime Minister would make a decision involving his country’s national security and defer to another country’s interest.”He went on to say that “the main goal on this trip is to have the opportunity to speak to the Israeli people”, conceding that “what has been a tough neighborhood is now even tougher”.

The press conference was followed by dinner, where they were to be joined by government Ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Tzipi Livni, and Yuval Steinitz, and further discussion.The President will remain in Israel until Friday afternoon. Hopefully, the result will be new understandings that will cement the relationship between the US and Israel and smooth out some of the diplomatic differences that has kept the parties at odds for most of the Obama administration.

Analysis:  The first steps towards a positive conciliation between Obama and Netanyahu may have been taken today, but the questions lurking just underneath the surface are a) whether the apparent warmth between them is real or just for the cameras, and b) what will really go on behind closed doors when they discuss the tough issues on which their strategies and perceived national interests diverge.As we wrote below, in an article written before the visit began, we expected that some serious arm twisting would be done in the secret sessions between Obama and Netanyahu.

We will watch with great interest as the President’s trip progresses. Tomorrow he will meet with the President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) in Ramallah, and then return to Jerusalem, where he will spend another day, seeing sights.

GerardDirect will continue to post updates and analysis as events of the President’s trip unfold.

MORE . . . earlier reports

UPDATE Mar 20, 2013, 1:00 pm: After weeks of diplomatic and logistical preparations, US President Barack Obama arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, Israel shortly after noon local time on Air Force One. Obama arrived in Israel this morning to an extraordinarily warm display of welcome from the Israeli government. The President, who traveled to Israel with Secretary of State John Kerry, was greeted at the airport in Lod by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. Shortly after his arrival he had the opportunity to see an Iron Dome battery, which was recently deployed to the national airport to protect aircraft against rocket attacks.

Then the entourage traveled to Jerusalem, where President Obama was greeted with songs of welcome from a group of young Israeli children. The President then had a private meeting with President Peres, followed by a brief press conference, in which an exchange of warm, fuzzy speeches by the two Presidents were featured. (In Israel, the office of President is a ceremonial position. His not an elected official. That role, in Israel, is filled by the Prime Minister, who would be the official counterpart of President Obama. As Peres once said, according to Obama, “In Israel, the role of the Prime Minister is to lead, and the role of the President is to charm”).

Later, the real business of the day commenced. Obama and Netanyahu retired to the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, for private talks that were scheduled to last until approximately 8 pm local time (2 pm EDT). The issues that they have been likely discussing are critical, relating  not only between Israel and the US, but relate to the Iranian nuclear threat, the crisis in Syria, the growing crisis in Jordan, the threats against Israel from Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon, and the continuing unrest in Egypt.

All these issues impact not only the region but the world at large.The primary question is how much of the surface friendliness is real and how much is PR. How much pressure will Obama put on Netanyahu to make concessions to the Palestinians to fall into line with his concept of a two state solution with a significantly smaller Israel with a sizable Palestinian presence, and a new Palestinian state with no Jewish population.GerardDirect is following live coverage from Israel and we will report breaking news as it happens.

MORE . . . earlier report

Original Analysis:  As President Barack Obama embarks on his first trip to Israel since he was elected in 2008, the White House has released a video that spells out the President’s itinerary in Israel, the Palestinian territories, and Jordan. It seems that the President’s trip is going to be largely ceremonial, as he visits various tourist sites in Israel, mostly the graves of Jewish leaders,  the Holocaust Museum (in case he forgot the horrors of the Holocaust since his earlier trip while he was still a Senator), the Israel Museum, a high tech exhibit, and a speech to university students. This is not an error on the part of the President’s travel agency.

Obama has made it clear that this trip is not about photo-ops. Nevertheless, at least from the outside, that’s what it looks like.obama_schedule in Israel

But the White House’s presentation was full of hidden messages, and suggests that his mission is far from just ceremonial. Among other things, in the course of the video, a map of the region is shown which highlights what the White House seems to consider to be the shape of Israel (see photo at right). Missing is not only the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in its defensive Six Day War in 1967, but the Upper Galilee (Galil Elyon), which has been a part of Israel since its founding in 1948. Also missing is a strip of land along its entire coastline (even though the map, inexplicably, includes Gaza), and the corridor that delineates the two parts of the West Bank, Judea and Samaria, and leads to Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, which is also missing from the map. (See the insert on the right of the picture, which shows the map correctly, then watch the whole video below).

Interestingly, the video mentions that the President will stop in “Tel Aviv, Israel” and in “Amman, Jordan” but refers to Israel’s capital city as “Jerusalem”, as if the city were not associated with any country. This is in keeping with Obama’s policy of Jerusalem’s status as “unsettled”, denying that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital or even a part of Israel. The administration’s stubborn reluctance to acknowledge that Jerusalem has been the capital of Israel for nearly sixty-five years is not just rhetoric. It has been a small burr under the saddle of US-Israel relations for more than half a century.

At some level, this intentional myopia must have been interfering with fully constructive talks between the two countries for just as long.

Obama’s Real Purpose

GerardDirect analysis suggests that the real purpose of this trip is wrapped around the proverbial ‘big stick’ that the President will be carrying, intending to employ severe pressure in back-room talks with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He will demand that Israel stop expansion in what are called “settlements”. The ‘settlements’, as they are commonly called, are in fact mostly small towns that have sprung up in various places in the ‘West Bank’ over the last forty-six years. These mature Israeli towns have expanded naturally, as children were born and families grew, and they now require more infrastructure such as apartments, health care facilities, and schools. Their presence represents facts on the ground, and a change in their status must be negotiated, not mandated by the head of a foreign government.

Obama is also likely to demand a) new concessions from Israel to the Palestinians (who have made none of their own and still refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist), and b)  the creation of a ‘contiguous Palestinian state’, with Israel returning to the 1967 borders that, in the modern age of high speed rockets and sophisticated missiles, are indefensible.And what will Obama use for leverage?

For starters, foreign aid to Israel, which Congress has consistently supported, most lately to the tune of approximately $1.3 billion in military aid. Most US aid to Israel is currently in the form of military assistance, although it was previously in the form of significant economic assistance in other areas.US military aid is not a one way transaction, however.

Iron Dome, for example, is the world’s only dual-mission, counter rocket, artillery, mortar (C-RAM), and Very Short Range Air Defense system. It distinguished itself in 2012 by defending Israel’s population against a massive missile assault from GazaIron Dome, a proven  success for American investment in Israeli technology. Contrary to popular opinion, Iron Dome is not an American invention. It was developed by Israel’s Raphael Advanced Defense Systems. Israel received US funding to support its development, and in return, the US government now has access to the Israeli technology.

Presumably, Obama could threaten to withhold further foreign aid, limiting Israel’s future ability to continue its ongoing weapons development program, even though this is clearly a two-edged sword because America might lose as much as it gained.Obama has other leverage as well. According to globalsecurity.com, the US military is deeply, if secretly, entrenched in Israel.

“The United States has pre-positioned munitions, vehicles, and other military equipment for US Marines, Special Forces, and Air Force aircraft, including an estimated $500 million worth of ammunition the United States keeps in Israel for wartime contingencies. At least six sites in Israel are used for storage, including at least three locations called Sites 51, 53, and 54. The specific locations are classified and highly sensitive.”

GerardDirect recently posted an article about a new, secret, underground site – strangely named Site 911 – that has been commissioned by the US military. America’s presence in Israel give Obama a strong position in his plan to pressure Netanyahu to meet him considerably more than half-way.

And that is not all he can do. During the first intifada America’s ambivalent but forceful policy towards Israel and the Palestinians resulted in forcing Israel to try to contain the uprising with the proverbial ‘one hand tied behind its back’. The US demanded that Israel show restraint, even as the’ protesters’ were engaging in raw terrorism against Israeli civilians.  During the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was triggered by the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers from Israeli soil, the US even threatened to bomb Israel if they did not “show restraint” as per US demands. Is Obama prepared to go that far again? I’m guessing that he is. But we may never know for sure, unless someone leaks it.  (What are the chances of that happening?)

What leverage does Israel have in return?It’s difficult to say. The United States and Israel have cooperated on intelligence matters since the 1950s. Throughout the Cold War, Israel provided the U.S. with information on Soviet-built weapons systems captured from the Arabs. Israel also provides the U.S. with much of its Middle Eastern human intelligence.But withholding intelligence is not sufficient leverage if Obama believes he doesn’t need it anymore. He seems to feel that he holds all the cards, marginalizing Israel’s considerable contributions over the years to the US military and American national security. With all of the ups and downs that this relationship has had over the years, never has the atmosphere been so tense and the players so untrusting of one another.

The President’s uninspired itinerary in Israel notwithstanding, Obama has apparently made it clear to Netanyahu that his visit is not about photo-ops, but rather about the possibility of a nuclear Iran and the elusive ‘peace process’ with the Palestinians.  The implication, as usual, is that if he doesn’t get what he wants, he will act on his own.What will Netanyahu do? It is difficult to say. He has been Prime Minister before and he knows what kind of pressure the US can put on tiny Israel. he also understands how strong the pressure can be. He now faces a confident Obama after having just convened a brand new government of his own, sworn in just yesterday, and must have some doubts about how much support his government (what we would call his “cabinet”) will give him should he choose to take a strong stand against the Obama plan.

The degree of pressure that Obama will put on Netanyahu is also not clear, but that he will apply pressure seems absolutely certain. In the past, Obama has shown how little he likes Netanyahu, and he does not like it when he can not get his way. He has shown extraordinary rudeness to Netanyahu in the past, and there is no reason to think that he will not use every device at his disposal to make his point and, if possible, get his way. We will not be told what has transpired behind closed doors, but the outcome of the discussions will leak out one way or another, and the results will also be spelled out in the events that follow Obama’s visit.

One can always hope for an outcome that will be better than what we expect to happen. Obama has been on a ‘charm offensive’ over the last weeks. Perhaps it will spill over into his trip, which could make a big difference in the outcome. America is so used to meddling in the internal affairs and national security of other states, that it is inconceivable that our President will not do so with Israel during this visit.

 

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