Barack Obama - Reuters - 1.2.2011
U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, Feb. 1, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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When you ask representatives of Israel's opposition for their take on President Shimon Peres' visit to Washington this week, the responses tend to be cynical. "He went to promote Bibi once again," said one. "To convince Obama that Bibi is serious. He has a stable coalition, but he can't move anything. He has no plan."

Yesterday morning, as Peres settled in at his room in the Blair House and received a bouquet of flowers and a welcome note from the First Lady (it's always the First Lady, as though her husband can't send flowers to his guests just because he's a man ), participants at the annual Anti-Defamation League conference, held at the nearby Mayflower Hotel, were discussing how the United States and Israel should move forward and whether they should move at all in a region that is so turbulent.

Ambassador Martin Indyk, a senior adviser to Middle East special envoy George Mitchell, said that in wake of recent developments in the region, the focus of U.S. attention has shifted. "Israelis and the Palestinians for the first time are probably left to their own devices," he said. "The U.S. is preoccupied. We are in the midst of a profound crisis today between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. What happens in Egypt will have profound consequences on the U.S. There is a side show in Libya. The Obama administration needs to focus on what is happening in the Arab world. It makes sense for Israel to take its fate in its hands, sit with people it wants to sit with and make a deal. The pressure is building at the U.N. It's very clear that time is not on Israel's side."

Jackson Diehl of The Washington Post, who also addressed the conference, expressed concern that the United States did not do enough to support change in the region. "I am worrying that President Obama is going to be too ambitious on the peace process and not ambitious enough with the Arab world reforms," he said. "Obama's handling of the crisis has been effective in some ways. But he was the last major Western leader to say Gadhafi has to go. If there is a Sunni government in Syria, it will be less friendly to Hezbollah and Iran, and we should support it."

Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council for Foreign Relations and a former special assistant to President Bush, was also there. He urged Israel to act and not wait for the Palestinians or Americans.

"If you think you need to separate from the Palestinians, why don't you separate from the Palestinians?" he asked. "Are there not actions that Israel could take rather than wait for the Palestinians to make mistakes? This is a moment when boldness on the part of Israel could work. We are talking about Arab governments that need to get ahead of the curve, and I think that Israel needs to get ahead of the curve."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, expressed hope that the United States would not pressure Israel. "But I am afraid it will," he acknowledged. "I think we all want the Israeli prime minister to take some initiative. The Jewish community here would like him to do something. Even once, if you do it as a diplomatic maneuver, it becomes your policy. Israel needs to take an initiative, and there is a consensus in Israel about where you want to go - then act on that consensus."

Ambassador Dennis Ross, a special assistant to the president, said that the United States continues to oppose a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood. "We have consistently made clear that the way to produce the Palestinian state is not the unilateral declaration and not the UN," he said. "We reached out to countries to explain our position. We'll continue to oppose it. President Abbas himself prefers negotiations."

It is doubtful that there will be major surprises during Peres' visit. Ross laid the foundation for today's meeting between the two presidents at the White House, saying that "the one thing in the period of uncertainty that is certain is our relationship with Israel, bound with a set of shared values and interests. Our commitment to Israeli security is unshakable and ironclad. It's not just words. We are giving it life and meaning on a daily basis."

He also referred to Peres' vision of a New Middle East, which has received a bit of a boost in wake of the Arab Spring. "Shimon Peres in 1993 spoke about a new Middle East with cooperation and peace," said Ross. "The reality is it couldn't be built on an authoritarian foundation. We have great interest in pursuing it and promoting private partnerships that will help this country in transition. To ensure that as a new generation of leaders emerge, they'll see peace is a possibility."

In a separate issue, Ross said that sanctions against Iran are already being felt. "Unless and until Iran complies with its international obligations, we will continue to ratchet up the pressure," he said.

There won't be any plans presented at the Obama-Peres summit - not ahead of Netanyahu's expected visit in May. But there is one thing to watch for: Before Peres boarded his flight to Washington, Jonathan Pollard's wife Esther begged him to convince Obama to grant her husband clemency. Until now, administration officials have given no indication whether Obama is interested in such a gesture.

For a variety of reasons, Obama feels more comfortable with Peres than with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Peres' vision of the world is certainly closer to his. And Richard Goldstone's op-ed in The Washington Post this weekend, which cleared Israel of "intentional war crimes" charges, provides a good counter-balance to the eventuality of yet another settlement construction report. Whether it will have a lasting effect, however, remains doubtful.

Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, said at the ADL conference that the "Goldstone report caused significant damage to Israel and any other democratic country fighting terror. It provided a great victory to terror. While his retraction of the main charges against Israel in that report repairs some of the damage - the injustice of it won't be redressed until the UN rescinds the report entirely and throws it into the garbage."

Abraham Foxman said the eventual outcome would depend on how far Goldstone would be willing to go. "If you leave it as an op-ed - it is a 2-3 day wonder, material for columnists, analysts, why did he do it? The question really is whether he'll take another step and will advocate what he said, and I am not sure. He will probably hunker now for a while. Who knows why he retracted? Maybe he has another grandson with a Bar-Mitzvah. But every time Israel has to take steps for its self-defense in an unfriendly diplomatic environment, it makes it that much worse, and I hope that op-ed will help to change it."