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Why on earth is Obama going to Israel?

Obama’s visit, by virtue of being routine and ill-timed has the potential to feed the region’s worst instincts

Why exactly is President Obama going to Israel? A variety of theories have been advanced as to why he is making the trip now and what might be accomplished.

Some have suggested that Obama needs to reassure Israel, to hold their hands and tell them that the US-Israeli relationship is special. This suggests that Obama cares about Israeli feelings, at least in the sense that positive sentiments advance policy goals, and that Israelis might be thus comforted by his presence. But the record of bad relations between Obama and Netanyahu is too long, and the fact that Obama is on record saying that Israelis don’t know what is best for them, whereas he does, has mitigated whatever good vibrations he might spread now.

Others have suggested that Obama is going to take advantage of the unique circumstances of weakness in the Arab world in order to force progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations. But the Palestinian Authority is again engaged in fruitless reconciliation talks with Hamas and has accused Israel of sabotaging those talks with back channel contacts with Hamas. It has also orchestrated violent protests against Israel in advance of Obama’s trip to create a price tag for its cooperation. The idea that Obama holds a strong hand falls short.

Still others believe the visit is a kind of reset, an opportunity to rebuild relations badly damaged by the misstep of forcing Israel to adopt a construction freeze that was neither asked for nor reciprocated by Palestinians, as a condition for resuming negotiations. Given the appointment of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, despite revelations regarding his peculiarly obsessive hostility towards Israel and near indifference towards other issues, this rings particularly hollow.

On the whole, the timing of the visit is so inauspicious as to arouse suspicion that a change of American policy is indeed in the making. Consider the Middle East scene today. The Egyptian military is making veiled threats against the American-supported Muslim Brotherhood Morsi government. The civil war in Syria is spreading into Lebanon. The threat of an Islamist takeover in Jordan has never been greater. And Iran, with the help of North Korea, inches ever closer to a nuclear weapon.

Nothing suggests the administration changing its policies on these realities. The US Government continues to support Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey in supplying the increasingly Islamist dominated rebels in Syria, and now will provide non-lethal aid directly. No meaningful pressure has been exerted on Egypt to change course, to push economic reforms or lessen growing repression against Christians and liberals. Jordan is, as ever, almost completely off the American radar. And while the sanctions policy against Iran has hurt the middle and lower classes, it has only increased the regime’s belligerence. The idea that Obama is coming to Israel to inform it of significant policy changes is the most far-fetched interpretation of all.

So why now? The simplest explanation may be the best; that in his second term Obama has less to lose and will at least gain a badly needed American PR boost by finally going, and that, in the absence of overt embarrassments, the trip will be deemed a success.

Based on the administration’s habit of doubling down on bad calls, chances are that the news Obama is bringing is a commitment to more of the same. A trip half way around the world for those reasons will undramatic as it is unproductive, and for that reason we should expect the trip to be couched in terms of “unprecedented security cooperation” between Israel and the US, and “being on the same page about Iran.” Photo-ops and talking past one another will be the norm. The stage has been set by the announcement that the US will keep funding joint development of anti-missile programs regardless of sequestration budget cutbacks. But the question of what might be accomplished remains.

But at another level the visit is dangerous. For one thing it will inevitably expose just how out of sync the US is with Israel as well as the region. The bad chemistry between Obama and Netanyahu will produce awkward body language when they meet. American spokesmen will visibly dance around unwanted questions regarding Hamas and Hezbollah, or Muslim antisemitism. The famously aggressive Israeli press will analyze Obama’s every move and every word, as will the Palestinian press. And despite carefully stage-managed meetings with selected groups, groups of Israelis and Palestinians are likely to loudly protest, causing embarrassment all around.

But the real impact of the Obama visit to Israel will not be in Israel but rather in Arab and Muslim countries. After all, it is in those countries that Obama has arguably (and if popularity polls are to be believed, unsuccessfully) invested the most political capital, and it is there that his trip to Israel will create the most disappointment and resentment. The ‘Arab Street’ will want to see overt confrontation between Israel and the US and will be disappointed when it doesn’t appear. More nuanced observers in those societies will assume other forms of American pressure on Israel, because they desire it, and then will be disappointed when evidence does not quickly appear. And virtually all local observers, especially in government ministries and official media, will obsess over the visit as a welcome respite from the situations in Syria and Egypt. The near tragic element of Obama’s visit and its timing then is that it plays directly into the region’s traditional use of Israel as a weapon of mass distraction.

Obama’s visit, by virtue of being routine and ill-timed has the potential to feed the region’s worst instincts. Disappointment with Obama will quickly turn to the default setting of blaming Israel. Is that Obama’s true goal, a back handed form of incitement? Probably not. Nothing in the Obama’ administration’s international dealings suggests this level of sophistication; its manufacture of resentment is generally reserved only for the Republican Party. But that will be one of its effects and it will, in all probability, set back the cause of peace, and that of addressing the region’s other issues.

About the Author
Alex Joffe is a historian and archaeologist. He is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow of the Middle East Forum.
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