Mainstream Israeli journalists are saying that President Barack Obama plans to take a new approach to Israeli-Palestinian talks, in which he will propose to follow the lead of the two sides.
According to this view, Obama now understands that, when he leaned on Jerusalem and Ramallah in his first term, it didn’t work.
So he intends to tell them he is willing to help but that they must take the initiative.
This is exactly what Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his colleagues want the country to believe; that Obama made nothing but mistakes for four years and has now seen the light, according to which he will encourage Netanyahu and Abbas to set the pace (which will leave our new government in control because we have the tanks, roads, fences, taxes withheld, land registries, bulldozers and roadblocks).
Yet there is nothing Obama might want to say to Netanyahu or Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he couldn’t say via secure telephone, or Skype for that matter. That is, if he wants them to carry the ball from now on, he doesn’t have to travel 6,000 miles to tell them that. Nevertheless, apparently uninvited, he has announced that he is coming, and what that means is that if he has a breakthrough in mind, it will not occur in a private conversation with this local politician or that, but in public. It will not be delivered to a few behind closed doors but televised, live.
Indeed, the aim of this visit is so plain Netanyahu may be losing sleep over it. What seems likely, in fact, is that in effect, Obama will tell Israeli voters that he is ready to make peace here, or at least go far in that direction. In which case, the implicit message will be clear: If the voters want that to happen and it doesn’t, they should blame someone other than him – say, their own government.
This is the sort of politics Obama practices in America; going over the heads of recalcitrant Republicans to speak to their constituents on behalf of Democratic policy proposals and projects. Therefore it is what we should expect him to do here because, after all, Netanyahu has already shown Obama he is, at heart, a Republican.
Of course, no one knows exactly what the president will say. But that is not the point of this visit. The point is that whatever Obama has to say, it will bypass Israel’s prime minister. Consequently, there will be no way for Netanyahu to filter it with a Likud “spin,” as if the speech had been delivered in a closed White House conversation.
Furthermore, in the upcoming speech, there is no need for Obama to outline a complete “peace plan,” so we don’t need to speculate about that in advance. Unlike in the old saying, in this case the devil is not in the details. In truth, the details don’t matter, because they can always be promoted later, in additional communications, here or in Washington, from the president or his new secretaries of state and defense.
In short, what matters now are not details but the end run around the prime minister.
If Obama later senses that the visit has changed the local political game – i.e., that Israelis, and especially opinion leaders among them, are increasingly willing to pressure their government to stop stalling – additional American moves can follow.
The author is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University.