Waiting until his second term, Barack Obama has finally decided to visit Israel in his official presidential capacity, beginning on March 20th. Obama will also be spending several hours in Ramallah to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Freed by his re-election from domestic political constraints, Obama can be expected to vigorously renew his call for Israel to retreat back to the pre-June 1967 lines with minor land swaps and to continue to refer to “East Jerusalem” as the capital of the new Palestinian state. He hasn’t asked the Palestinians to give up their insistence on the so-called “right of return,” which would send potentially millions of Palestinian refugees back to live within the land of pre-June 1967 Israel and effectively destroy its Jewish identity. Don’t expect him to do so on this trip.
Obama will be facing off with a politically weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to put together a governing coalition and may have to partner with centrists willing to make more concessions to reach an agreement with the Palestinians for a two state solution.
For example, Prime Minister Netanyahu has entered into an alliance with the Hatnua party and its chair Tzipi Livni, a strong proponent of a negotiated two state solution who has reportedly been offered a leading role in the negotiations. “We need to say ‘Yes’ from time to time too,” Livni said back in 2010 when referring to Netanyahu’s refusal to extend the settlement freeze as Obama had then demanded.
There is also the centrist Yesh Atid party, led by former television journalist Yair Lapid, which finished second, with 19 seats, and could join a Netanyahu-led coalition if certain demands are met. Although he ran largely on economic issues and on a platform countering the influence of the ultra-orthodox in Israel’s political affairs, Lapid also said that he will demand a resumption of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
However, Obama recognizes that Netanyahu will continue to be pressured from the Israeli right as well, including from his orthodox party allies and from Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, who is adamantly opposed to giving up any West Bank land to the Palestinians.
Thus, Obama will be seeking to leverage Israel’s dependence on the United States for maintaining its qualitative military advantage in the region and for assistance in neutralizing Iran’s potential nuclear threat in order to tilt Netanyahu decisively towards the centrists’ position on negotiations with the Palestinians and a freeze on settlements.
According to an unconfirmed report by World Tribune, quoting unnamed Israeli sources, Obama wants Prime Minister Netanyahu to present him with a detailed Israeli plan for withdrawal from the West Bank so that a Palestinian state can be established there as early as 2014.
“Obama has made it clear to Netanyahu that his visit is not about photo-ops, but the business of Iran and a Palestinian state,” a source was quoted as saying in the World Tribune report. “The implication is that if Israel won’t give him something he can work with, then he’ll act on his own.”
Whether or not this report turns out to be true, a key argument Obama can be expected to make to Netanyahu is that Abbas represents Israel’s last chance at making peace with a “moderate” Palestinian leader. Failure to seize this opportunity now, so the argument goes, will further enhance Hamas’s reputation at the expense of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, and will feed the fires of a third intifada already at risk of being sparked by the death of a Palestinian prisoner and the sickened condition of Palestinian hunger strikers in Israel’s custody. Abbas’s only chance of survival is to play the same kind of extortionist game that Hamas is so adept at playing, which is to bargain for more concessions from Israel in return for a promise to keep violence against Israelis from getting out of hand. Obama may well end up as the enabler of this strategy during his visit to Israel and the West Bank.
Will Obama offer his own plan on reinforcing the faltering security apparatus of the Palestinian Authority during the period of resumed negotiations and suggest replacing it with some sort of international military presence as part of the final peace settlement? Obama has a blueprint to turn to if he is so inclined, co-authored by his new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. This 2009 report recommended the two state solution boundaries embraced by Obama, enforced by a “U.S.-led multinational force” which would be “under a UN mandate” and “feature American leadership of a NATO force supplemented by Jordanians, Egyptians and Israelis.” Jerusalem would have “a special security and administrative regime of its own.” A NATO researcher estimated that about 60,000 US/NATO troops and about 160 billion dollars over 10 years would be required to carry out this plan.
President Obama has another card to play in pushing Netanyahu towards making the concessions required to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. He can play on the emotionalism in Israel surrounding the life sentence of Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence officer who once had dual U.S. and Israeli citizenships and pled guilty to passing classified information to Israel. Pollard has been in prison since 1987. Under normal circumstances, he will be eligible for parole, and may be released, on November 21, 2015. Obama could use his clemency powers and cite humanitarian health reasons for considering an earlier release, if the price is right.
“The time has long since come for Jonathan to go free,” Netanyahu said recently. “This issue will come up during President Obama’s visit. It has already been raised countless times by myself and others, and the time has come for him to go free.”
Obama may listen to Netanyahu’s plea this time, believing that the promise of a prompt release of Pollard in exchange for a moratorium on settlements and the release of more Palestinian prisoners, including the hunger strikers, may be enough to jump start resumed negotiations with the Palestine Authority, forestall at least temporarily a third intifada and enhance Abbas’s legitimacy vis-à-vis his Hamas rivals.
The Iranian nuclear threat is also certain to come up during the two leaders’ discussions, with Obama saying he needs more time to see whether the current negotiations with Iran and the sanctions will bear fruit and Netanyahu trying to convince Obama that time is rapidly running out to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear arms capability. Whether there is any new intelligence to be shared by the two leaders, or whether they will agree on a timetable for possible coordinated military action if all other measures fail, is anyone’s guess.
At least, after visiting other countries in the Middle East region while skipping Israel during his first term, President Obama is finally going to Israel. Expect him to pay his public respects to the victims of the Holocaust and repeat Vice President Joe Biden’s declaration to AIPAC on Monday of “our deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel.” It is what Obama will say to Netanyahu in private, and what he may threaten to do if Netanyahu does not heed Obama’s advice on concessions to the Palestinians, that remains very worrisome.
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