Obama’s Israel Visit Will Be the Moment of Truth for Netanyahu

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The White House's surprising, dramatic announcement this week that President Barack Obama will come to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan has had an immediate impact on Israel's domestic political agenda and on the larger Middle Eastern political and diplomatic landscape.

Following Barack Obama's re-election, analysts and commentators have been speculating on the policy he was likely to adopt with regard to Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some have argued that he was likely to re-engage in the effort to resolve the conflict that he had abandoned after a humiliating failure, and that he would probably assign the task to his secretary of state, keeping a safe distance from the Israeli-Palestinian minefield. Others argued that rather than get into yet another clash with Benjamin Netanyahu, Obama will opt for sort of "a benign neglect" and let the Europeans and the UN take the initiative and then perhaps join the scene once Netanyahu had been softened up.

Obama's choice was clearly different from these speculations. He is taking the matter into his own hands, and he is doing it early in his second term, thus indicating the priority he assigns to the issue and his willingness to take the political risks he knows all too well. This decision is congruent with the line taken by Obama when he made choices such as Hagel's appointment as secretary of defense. Hagel was chosen because his world-view suits the president's, and the latter was willing to enter a tough domestic battle in order to get the nomination through. The message was: I have been re-elected, I was given a second mandate by a large majority and I am going to implement my vision free of the constraints of a first-term president.

In the same vein, Obama's decision to re-enter the Israeli-Palestinian fray signifies his determination to lead the effort to resolve a conflict he views as a key to America's relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds. Obama knows full well that Netanyahu's concept of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and its potential settlement is very different than his own, and he is clearly willing to let Israel's re-elected Prime Minister make the choice - either work with Israel’s central ally, or face the consequences of another confrontation.

The timing of the White House statement is significant and intriguing. It was made in the midst of the negotiations over the formation of the next Israeli coalition. This is a first. Over the years we have seen cases of mutual American and Israeli meddling in each other's election campaigns: Bush and Baker against Yitzhak Shamir in 1992 and the recent controversies surrounding the U.S. presidential election are two prime examples. But we have not yet seen an attempt like this to shape an Israeli governing coalition.

The U.S. message is two-fold, and it is addressed both to Netanyahu and to his prospective partners. If Netanyahu is pondering the option of leaving Yair Lapid out of the coalition and going for a narrow right-wing coalition, he now knows that he would be leading such a coalition towards a head-on collision with a U.S. president determined to restart a peace process. Whatever his ultimate intentions, Netanyahu would be well advised to build a larger, more liberal coalition that would provide him with the domestic base for entering a peace process.

For Yair Lapid the message is that while he ran successfully on a domestic agenda, foreign policy is moving to the head of the political agenda. Lapid probably wants the Foreign Ministry anyway (the only major portfolio that suits him) and being part of the team dealing with the anticipated peace process is both a challenge and an opportunity. Naftali Bennett's calculus is more complex. Until Tuesday, his party's line was that it could join a government that restarts some kind of peace process. He and his colleagues would have assumed that Netanyahu would not go the distance and, if he did, they could always jump off the bandwagon. But with Obama's new policy they must realize that the moment of truth may come much sooner.

Beyond these tactical issues lies a deeper question: What does Netanyahu really want to accomplish in his third term? His first term was a largely unsuccessful learning phase. In his second term he matured into an effective politician with glimpses of statesmanship, but on the whole he seemed to be more concerned with political survival than with making a real impact. Is it possible that in his third term he would actually try to make a difference and leave a legacy? While dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat is very important, it does not constitute a legacy compared to those left to history by Begin, Rabin and Sharon. Working with Obama seriously on the peace process and using such cooperation in order to collaborate on other crucial challenges to Israel's national security cannot be defined solely as a challenge; it could also be an opportunity.

Indeed, Obama's agenda for this visit is not limited to the Palestinian issue. The Iranian nuclear issue needs to be dealt with and, as we saw last week, the Syrian crisis can easily produce a major regional crisis. The U.S. and Israel need to coordinate their policies on these two issues. Inevitably linkages will be created; cordial collaboration on the peace process will facilitate coordination with regard to Iran and Syria.

And a final point regarding Barack Obama's choices. He was clearly not deterred by the failure of his first effort to generate an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It is quite easy to understand why a re-elected, invigorated, president would opt to go back to an issue he strongly believes in. One can only hope that he would also learn from the mistakes that he (as well as Abu Mazen and Netanyahu) made in 2009 and 2010, in order to be able to launch a more successful effort in 2013.

Itamar Rabinovich was Israel's ambassador to the U.S. from 1993–1996, is the author most recently of The Lingering Conflict: Israel, the Arabs and the Middle East 1948-2011 (Brookings Institute, 2011). 

U.S. President Barack Obama boarding Air Force 1. Credit: AP

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