US President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel is being billed by Washington insiders as primarily a “charm offensive.” They have suggested that the American leader wants to communicate directly with the Israeli people, voicing his strong support for Israel and its security.
Obama will no doubt praise the US-funded Iron Dome system, which operated so successfully during Operation Pillar of Defense last November. It is a powerful symbol of the “unbreakable alliance” that both Israel and the US want to convey during the president’s visit.
The White House has made it clear that Obama will not be bringing with him grandiose plans to jump-start the long-stalled peace process with the Palestinians. This represents a change in Washington’s approach to a historic presidential visit to the Jewish state.
In Obama’s first term, the assessment seemed to be that it made no sense to come to Jerusalem as long as negotiations with the Palestinians were stalled and the US president could have no tangible diplomatic achievements to show the American people. But apparently that assessment has changed and a visit to Israel that does not represent a chance to close a deal but to simply improve communication between the sides now is seen as a good idea.
Still, despite Washington’s concerted effort to lower expectations – at least with regard to solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – there are a number of pressing issues affecting the region that can be better addressed in direct meetings between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The first is Iran’s march toward nuclear arms. Obama and Netanyahu both agree that containment is not an option for the Islamic Republic and that the Shi’ite mullahs ruling Iran must be stopped before they get a nuclear bomb.
However, Obama and Netanyahu – preferably in direct meetings – must hammer out their differences over the time frame.
In an interview with Channel 2’s Yonit Levi ahead of his visit here, Obama said it would take Iran a year or more to build a nuclear weapon. In contrast, Netanyahu, in a speech before the UN last fall, said that Iran could cross a critical threshold in its capacity to build a weapon by this spring or summer.
As the leader of the Jewish people, who have been threatened with destruction by Iran’s leaders, Netanyahu wants assurances that the US will launch a military strike if necessary to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Ideally, he would also like to define a mutually agreed upon “red line” or the point at which it has been determined that diplomacy and sanctions are useless and military action must be taken. The two will also compare assessments of Iran’s economic deterioration as a result of steadily increasing sanctions and estimate the chances that diplomacy will succeed.
Another pressing regional issue is Syria. There is a real danger that the ongoing conflict between the Assad regime and a multitude of opposition groups – including those affiliated with al-Qaida – will spillover and have ramifications for the political stability of Jordan.
The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg quoted “several sources” in Amman and Tel Aviv saying that Israeli drones were monitoring the Jordan-Syria border on Jordan’s behalf and that military and intelligence officials from the two countries are in constant contact, planning for the inevitable chaos post-Bashar Assad.
Israel is also concerned that a large amount of arms – including huge caches of chemical and biological weapons – could fall into the wrong hands.
Jihadi terrorists might take control of growing power vacuums in northern Syria. But American support for non- Islamist opposition forces inside Syria could prevent this.
Obama’s visit is being touted as primarily an opportunity, as both the US and Israel embark on newly-elected administrations to improve communication. Both Obama and Netanyahu have an interest in reflecting the solid ties between the two countries in their own conduct with one another during the US president’s two-day stay.
Admittedly, little if any headway will probably be made vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
There are, however, a number of substantive issues – including Iran and Syria – on the agenda that need to be addressed during Obama’s meetings in Jerusalem and Amman. And this should make the US president’s visit to the region more than just a “charm offensive.”