Regional Threats Loom Large over Obama's Israel Trip

The president's first day in a deteriorating Middle East makes clear he has entered a war zone.

Speculations that President Obama was coming to Israel to keep pursuing a blind obsession with the Palestinian issue appeared, fortunately, unsubstantiated by the time of his press conference with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Wednesday evening.

Both leaders’ words were devoted mainly to the Iranian and Syrian issues; Obama’s own words on the Palestinian matter expressed a lowering of expectations and an acknowledgment that the “solution” he had often stridently pursued during his first term was more elusive than he had thought.

In their three-hour talk before the press conference, Netanyahu was accompanied by his national security adviser Yaakov Amidror and his military attaché Yair Zamir; Obama by his security adviser Tom Donilon and Secretary of State John Kerry. The makeup clearly connotes that security issues were paramount.

A grim preface to Obama’s visit was a statement earlier in the day by Yuval Steinitz—Israel’s finance minister in the previous government, now minister of intelligence and strategic affairs—that chemical weapons had been used in Syria. Steinitz did not claim to know whether it was the regime or rebel forces that had used them. AP reports that a “senior [Israeli] defense official… concurred…[based] on intelligence reports.”

Obama has called the use of chemical weapons in Syria a “red line” possibly prompting U.S. military action. Asked about the matter during the press conference, Obama said the U.S. would investigate whether the weapons were used and that “the Assad regime must understand that they will be held accountable for the use of chemical weapons or their transfer to terrorists.”

Lebanon’s Daily Star had reported two days earlier that Israeli planes had dropped flare bombs in southern Lebanon—a possible response or warning about Syrian weapons making their way into Hizballah’s hands.

Obama, in other words, is entering a war zone, not a playground for peace fantasies. Although his visit to Palestinian Authority headquarters and address to Israeli university students on Thursday may yet hold surprises, indications so far are that he has sobered up about Israel’s neighborhood and the real issues it faces.

More critical yet, of course, than the Syrian crisis is Iran’s ongoing march toward a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu told the assembled reporters: “A nuclear Iran is a grave threat. The U.S. is committed to deal with it, Israel is committed to deal with it. Israel has a right to independently defend itself from any threat.”

Obama responded with words that did not negate that right of Israel’s and appeared aimed at making Tehran nervous. Stating that “there is not a lot of daylight between our countries’ assessments as to where Iran is right now, in its nuclear weapons program,” Obama went on to say:

Each country has to make its own decisions. Israel is differently situated from the US. I would not expect that the prime minister would defer decisions on his country's security to other countries. I would not do that regarding my country’s security.

I have said to Bibi that I think there is time to solve this diplomatically. Will Iran seize that opportunity? It would be in Iran’s interest if this were solved diplomatically.

As if to shore up the claim that the two countries are not too far apart on the Iranian issue, the chemistry between the two leaders appeared comfortable and good—clearly unlike in previous joint appearances.

Obama is well aware that a new government has taken the reins in Israel. Its more dovish factions, Hatnuah and Yesh Atid, account for 25 mandates (out of Israel’s 120-seat Knesset); while the solidly hawkish Habayit Hayehudi faction and Netanyahu’s Likud—with a more hawkish composition than in the previous government—account for 43.

It is not, in other words, a government looking to make reckless concessions.

One would like to think Obama is also aware of such data as the Palestinian Authority’s official daily stating in an op-ed on Tuesday—one day before his visit—that America itself was behind the 9/11 attack and Hitler was a noble statesman, superior to Roosevelt and Churchill.

After the press conference the two heads of government were to be joined in a working dinner by the abovementioned top security official Yuval Steinitz and Israel’s new defense minister, Moshe Yaalon. On the Israeli side it was a particularly intelligent and reality-oriented crew. One would like to think the discussion was serious and realistic all around.

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