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Despite the characteristic sense of entitlement conveyed by many in the Israeli elite in advance of Barack Obama’s first presidential visit: “You finally made it, what took you so long?” the must-go-to-Israel clause in the U.S. presidential contract is of surprisingly recent vintage.
Next week marks the ninth visit by a sitting U.S .President. But half of those previous eight trips were notched-up by Bill Clinton alone, and another two by George W. Bush in his very last year in office (yes, he waited eight years to say "Hi" in person). The nature of this Obama visit, most closely resembling the second Bush trip of May 2008, should tell us something about the changing contours of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The first two presidential visits were in the 1970’s. Nixon came in 1974 (a quarter-century after Israel’s creation) and Carter in 1979, both unequivocally focused on advancing Israeli - Egyptian deals that served American regional interests: First, the post-1973 war separation of forces agreement, and later the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Another fifteen years and two Presidents elapsed before Clinton became such a regular on these shores in the 1990s. All four of his trips were unmistakably dedicated to the peace process of the time - attending the Israel-Jordan peace agreement signing in 1994, Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral in 1995 (it would be absurd to de-link that occasion from the Israeli - Palestinian process), the post-bus-bombings and pre-election 1996 stop-over designed to save the peace process by hugging Shimon Peres (standing for election against Netanyahu), and finally a December 1998 visit to push the implementation of the Wye River Agreement, including an historic stop in Gaza (again, in part, a political visit to challenge Netanyahu). Even President Bush’s January 2008 jaunt was about pushing the Annapolis peace talks, however misguided and flawed those were.
So for thirty-plus years the ostensible driving factor for Presidential visits has been to align America’s Israel relationship with its national security interest, by promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors.
The second Bush visit in June 2008 broke that trend, dedicated as it was to celebrating Israel’s 60th anniversary and marking the primacy of the bilateral and political in defining American-Israeli interaction. The timing and anticipated content of the Obama visit would appear to continue that new orientation. It is again mostly about politics (U.S. domestic politics) and the bilateral relationship. The Palestinians will be mentioned and feature as part of the visit, yet expectations of a new Israel- Palestine initiative are low for good reasons. Obama is coming first and foremost to make a statement about the U.S.-Israel bond, not the illegal occupation, the unresolved conflict or American interests.
Of course Iran will also be on the agenda, a potential conflict that is often hyped in part to displace the one that we prefer to ignore, the Palestinians. Yet even the Iran agenda is about politics over substance, with Netanyahu essentially assuming the role of an influential actor on the American political scene, from whom Obama is trying to extract several months of Congressional breathing space.
Given American (and European) refusal to directly deploy the considerable leverage at their disposal to push Israel to de-occupation, it is better if the President not insist on the immediate resumption of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Israeli impunity and maximalism combined with the asymmetry between the parties – exacerbated rather than mitigated by U.S. policy – guarantees that renewed direct negotiations will do more harm than good, further convincing the respective publics that a deal is impossible. No wonder Naftali Bennet (and Hamas) see no threat in further negotiations, even with Minister Livni at the helm.
What then is left for a visiting President to do? Some cling to the notion that more American assurances and carrots will encourage Israel on the road to peace. That is farcical. The juiciest economic, military and diplomatic carrots have already been conferred on Israel irrespective of its entrenchment of occupation or violations of international law. No American carrot will induce Naftali Bennett or Uri Ariel, or Netanyahu and his faction of annexationists to abandon the settlements. So if the President is unwilling to change the rules of the game, better that he go with the flow, that he embrace and own the primacy of the political in this relationship. He can dust-off and re-tool part of the Clinton playbook of the 1990’s for engineering Israeli politics.
And that is probably what Obama’s visit should and in fact may start to do. By speaking directly to Israelis, including at an especially convened event in Jerusalem, Obama is doing something he avoided in his first term: He is accumulating some personal credit in the bank with the Israeli public. He should be looking to create an opportunity during his second term to draw on that deposit by building toward a clear moment of decision for Israel on the terms of reference for a two-state deal, notably a territorial resolution based on the 1967 lines with equal and minimal land swaps.
The relationship with Israel’s new kingmaker and self-anointed future king, Yair Lapid, should also be seen through a political lens. Can Lapid be educated on the Palestinian issue (he sure needs it)? Is he worth investing in? And what should he be expected to do on the Palestinian issue from within the government (most likely preventive in nature) in exchange? Through public diplomacy Lapid’s voters should be convinced that something is at stake if Yesh Atid support the settlement policies and peace rejectionism of Netanyahu-Bennett.
Finally, the U.S. administration should understand the political significance and potential residing in the composition of the new opposition, which brings together the centre-left and Arab parties with a Haredi bloc that is now in a tense stand-off with the in-government nationalist religious settler camp. The President and future high-level visitors should not waste their time (or at least waste minimal time) in bilateral meetings with opposition leader Shelly Yacimovich; they should rather celebrate Israeli democracy by convening together a broader spectrum of the Knesset opposition leadership that includes members of the Haredi and Arab factions, Meretz, and Labour’s more diplomatically-inclined leaders such as Yitzhak Herzog and Merav Michaeli. Obama should hold such a meeting. Engagement by American and other foreign dignitaries can help this alliance, one that is potentially crucial for Israel’s future, to gel around a shared national security platform and not just a domestic agenda.
For the Palestinian leadership the Obama visit should be (yet another) occasion for drawing their own conclusions on the need to accumulate leverage independent of U.S. policy.
American presidents are not Middle East scholars, they are politicians. If Obama begins to grasp the tribal, fluid and divided nature of Israeli politics and how he might impact the political calculations of Israeli voters and tribal leaders (including the new leader of the Ashkenazi middle class tribe, Yair Lapid and especially given Netanyahu’s weakened position) then this visit might be worth something after all.
Daniel Levy is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in London. He is also senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a board member of the New Israel Fund.