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The start of a beautiful friendship?
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
09/02/2013
Obama realizes that if he wants to make progress on peace, he needs to establish a better rapport with Netanyahu.
 
WASHINGTON – The US administration famously tried to “reset” the relationship with Russia at the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term. To reinforce the fresh start, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a mock red “reset” button.

Unfortunately, in a harbinger of how that effort would fare, the Russian on the button was spelled incorrectly, reading “overcharged” instead of “reset.”

Now there’s a new term, and with it a new reset.

This time, instead of Clinton traveling to Europe, Obama will fly to Israel to offer his own words to open a new chapter with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

So far, it appears that “shalom” – peace – won’t be one of them.

The statement recited by the White House Tuesday after Israeli media reported on the visit made no mention of working to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Instead, it referred to Obama and Netanyahu discussing “the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria.”

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, “We have here obviously a second term for the president, a new administration and a new government in Israel, and that’s an opportune time for a visit like this that is not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals.”

He noted that while the subject would presumably come up in Obama’s meetings with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, “That is not the purpose of this visit.”

While those words aren’t encouraging for those who want to see Obama get personally involved in the peace process in his second term, it does suggest that his effort to turn over a new page with the Israeli government could succeed.

For starters, the White House is setting expectations low. High expectations – with US demands for Israelis, Palestinians and Arab states that were never met – contributed to dooming Obama’s first-term peace effort. And dashed hopes can ultimately be as destructive to the peace process as violence, so Israeli officials believe that not raising false ones is an important part of managing the conflict until a solution is reached.

Obama also miscalculated early on in his term when he thought that he could win the backing of the Israeli people for his peace program by going over the head of Netanyahu and appealing to them directly – from Washington.

Aside from the fact that Israelis had just elected Netanyahu, indicating that they supported his diplomatic program, the public didn’t take it well when Obama spoke to them from the Oval Office but stopped by Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in person.

This time, the first foreign travel announcement for Obama’s new term is to Israel, suggesting the lesson has been learned.

“Given that the president’s approval ratings in Israel are not so high, it gives the Israeli people an opportunity to see the president up close and personal, and that’s a good thing,” said Robert Danin, who previously headed the Jerusalem mission of Quartet representative Tony Blair. “It allows Obama to establish new ties with not only the Israeli government but also the Israeli people.”

He added, “It’s less important on the policy level than on the psychological level.”

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department adviser on the peace process, agreed that the trip was much more about repairing a frayed relationship than working out the details of dealing with Iran or the Palestinians. Obama, Miller assessed, had realized that if he wanted to be able to make progress on those issues, he needed to establish a better rapport with Netanyahu.

“Whether that works or not is anyone’s guess, but it’s heading in the right direction,” said Miller, who has called the relationship between the two men the most dysfunctional he has seen between an Israeli and American leader.

Whatever the long-term payout, Obama’s visit to Israel does at least firmly demonstrate that the president is committed to trying a new approach.

“It requires a bold step,” Danin said. “And this is a bold step.”

Obama would not be the first president to try a different, less confrontational tack with Israel in a second term, according to Steven Spiegel, a UCLA political science professor who studies American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“Generally presidents go easier on Israel in their second term,” he said. “They discover that working with Israel works better.”

Referring to historical precedents, Spiegel said that presidents often think that if they pressure Israel they will get results from the Arab states, but that frustration with Arab leaders who don’t deliver often leads them to reassess how they engage with Israel.

“Disappointment with the Arab side tends to move in,” he said, “and presidents learn that tension doesn’t get them what they want.”

Now, he said, “It’s likely that Obama, having learned the lesson of trying to get Israel to do something it didn’t want to do, would go softer.”

Accordingly, if Obama does decide to greet Netanyahu with a reference to “shalom,” he might want to master the phrase that Bill Clinton used to charm the Israeli public when he came to Jerusalem to attend Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral, “Shalom, haver.”

Translation: “Shalom, friend.”
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