The Three Issues That Could Torpedo Obama's Visit to Israel

Obama’s arrival comes at a good time for the U.S. to clarify its support for Israel and for Israel to respond to American concerns. But Pollard, Iran and settlements have the potential to explode during the visit.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Presidential candidate Barack Obama visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 24, 2008.
Presidential candidate Barack Obama visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem, July 24, 2008.Credit: Rachel Starcher / Jini
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

During President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel, the reactions of the average American will range from mild interest to indifference. Most Americans are not very concerned about foreign policy. Still, they have good feelings about Israel and will likely see the trip positively.

American Jews, of course, will follow the visit closely, even if they are unsure about tangible results. Committed to Israel’s well-being and proud that their president is devoting time to the Jewish State, they will be happy with an outcome that involves the usual platitudes about reaffirming shared interests and values.

What could possibly go wrong? A number of things.

First, the issue of Jonathan Pollard could assume outsized importance.

The release of Pollard is a deeply emotional matter for most Israelis. And most American Jews—myself included—share the view that Pollard has suffered enough. But the plight of an American Jew who spied for Israel does not play well with the American public; during the presidential campaign, both candidates avoided public references to Pollard. The last thing that anyone wants is for the Pollard case to dominate press coverage and to crowd out all other issues.

Second, Prime Minister Netanyahu could give in to the tendency he sometimes has to lecture and scold the president about Iran.

Iran has faded a bit as a public issue in the United States, and that is just as well. Americans are ambivalent about military action against Iran, and isolationist winds are blowing; the filibuster stunt of isolationist Rand Paul has suddenly made him a mini-hero. Given the profound threat that Iran poses, the wisest way for Netanyahu to deal with this threat is to cultivate a personal relationship of trust and understanding about Iran with a president who has declared unequivocally that Iran will not be permitted to develop a nuclear weapon.

The problem with threats and rebukes is that they don’t work; the president resents it, the American people don’t like it, and close cooperation is undermined rather than advanced. Unfortunately, Mr. Netanyahu has fallen into this trap more than once. He cannot afford to make this mistake again.

Third, Israel could fail to reach an understanding with the United States on next steps with the Palestinians.

Not a few American Jews are proclaiming that the peace process is off the table, viewing this development as good news. But this is absurd. Israel’s security situation is precarious. Not only is Iran developing a nuclear bomb, Egypt’s future is uncertain and civil war rages in Syria; furthermore, Hezbollah and Hamas remain a threatening presence on Israel’s borders. The possibilities for military conflict are endless; perhaps Israel’s Defense Forces will be obligated to respond to Sunni extremists in Syria, or to a third intifada, or to a Hezbollah provocation. Israel will then need the support not only of the United States but of friendly countries in Europe and elsewhere. Such support can only be assured if Israel is seen as doing what it can to advance peace with the Palestinians.

America wants the backing of its allies as these dangers are confronted. And the President sees the interests of both America and Israel tied to progress on the peace front. In meeting with Jewish leaders to prepare for his trip, President Obama noted that while peace may not be possible now, he will return to the peace process soon. The subject will be on his agenda in Jerusalem. And precisely because the Palestinians cannot deliver a peace agreement at this time, Israel need not offer sweeping concessions; it need only take relatively modest steps to demonstrate its intentions—steps, if truth be told, that are long overdue. Setting temporary borders and stopping settlements beyond those borders would probably be sufficient.

But what will not be sufficient is repeating endlessly that the Palestinians will not negotiate. Much of the world—including nations friendly to Israel’s cause—simply does not see this as a fair claim as long as Israel is building settlements in territory that will one day be part of a Palestinian state. This message too will be communicated in Jerusalem.

Can Prime Minister Netanyahu do what needs to be done on settlements? His new government will have Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid but also Naftali Bennett and some ferocious right-wing voices from his own party who want only to settle and settle some more. Some say he will rise to the occasion; others are sure he will not.

In any case, with Israel threatened from every direction and her diplomatic isolation growing, the visit of President Obama comes at a good time. This is the right moment for America to make clear its support, and the right moment for Israel to be responsive to American concerns.

After the visit, we will probably hear only platitudes. But the substance will become clear soon enough. The goals: Keep the Pollard issue from becoming a crisis; build trust and clarity on Iran; reach an understanding on settlements and peace. These matters seem simple, but of course they are not, and let us remember that the stakes are enormously high.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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