US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel in late March will be far
more than a symbolic display of solidarity.
First and foremost, it could
have a decisive impact on the Iranian nuclear question.
Obama will want
to persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to bite the bullet and leave
preventing Iran from producing a bomb to the US. Netanyahu will not want to
surrender Israel’s right to take military action to defend itself against what
it sees as an existential threat. How this dialogue pans out could be crucial in
determining what happens on the Iranian front over the coming
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel
With the Middle East going through a turbulent transition phase,
the visit will provide Israeli leaders with a unique opportunity to coordinate
positions with the US on a host of major strategic challenges, besides the
Iranian bomb. Other weighty issues on the agenda will include strategic
implications of the civil war in Syria; renewal of peace talks with the
Palestinians; and factoring in the new reality of Islamist governments in power
across the Middle East and North Africa, especially in Egypt.
comes at a time when the strategic alliance between Israel and the US seems
stronger than ever. America has prepositioned in Israel an estimated $1.2
billion worth of military equipment for emergency use; the two countries
regularly carry out sophisticated joint military exercises; there is close
cooperation on missile defense; US military supplies to Israel include state-of-
the-art weaponry like the F-35 stealth fighter, due to be delivered by 2016; the
IDF has incorporated the Americandeveloped “Revolution in Military Affairs”
based on precision long-range fire power; the US has adopted Israeli
anti-terrorist fighting methods; the two countries exchange sensitive
They also share fundamental common interests: Preventing
Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; severing a post-Assad Syria from the
Iranian axis; maintaining stability in Jordan; preserving the peace treaty with
Egypt and helping to foster a more effective Egyptian regime in Sinai; and, last
but not least, renewing peace talks with Palestinians.
But there are
major differences over how these goals should be achieved, especially on the
Iranian bomb and peace with the Palestinians. This has created friction between
the two governments, and, on a personal level, bad blood between Obama and
One of the main goals of the Obama visit will be to convince
the Israeli people that the president has their interests at heart and can be
trusted on the big existential issues.
His first order of business though
will be to convince Netanyahu to sit tight and allow the US to deal with the
Iranian nuclear weapons threat. The American view is that economic sanctions and
diplomacy must be given a chance and military action taken only as a last
resort. Israel fears that Iran will simply use the time afforded by sanctions
and diplomacy to enter a “zone of immunity” in which its program is so far
advanced that it can no longer be stopped.
Obama will argue that
America’s policy is prevention of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons, not
containment of a nuclear Iran, and that because of its superior firepower the US
can afford to wait much longer than Israel before resorting to military action.
He will reaffirm that America is committed to doing whatever “it must” to stop
Iran going nuclear, including the use of force, and that precipitate Israeli
action could spark an unnecessary all-out war that no one
Netanyahu, however, will be mindful of past US failures to stop
North Korea, Pakistan and India from going nuclear, and insist that Israel
cannot take the chance that America might fail again, especially given the fact
that the US can live with a nuclear Iran whereas Israel can’t. In other words,
Netanyahu will be apprehensive about allowing Iran to enter a zone of immunity
against Israeli attack, leaving Israel totally reliant on American military
action, which may not happen.
So how can Obama persuade the Israeli
leader that America can be trusted to stop Iran? One idea being bandied about is
that the US involve Israel in joint military planning.
Last year American
generals went some way towards this when they showed the Israelis operational
plans. Another suggestion is that the US present Iran with an ultimatum – that
it stop its nuclear weapons’ program and allow invasive inspections of its
nuclear facilities or face heightened sanctions and possible military
Netanyahu called for something along these lines in late
February. “I believe it is incumbent upon the international community to
intensify the sanctions and clarify that if Iran continues its program, there
will be military sanctions,” he declared. Netanyahu would also like to see the
Americans openly building a credible military option. In his view, that is of
paramount importance. In a best case scenario, it might deter the Iranians. And
if not, the US and its allies would be able to act before it was too
If Obama is able to get through to Netanyahu, the most the prime
minister will do is hold back for as long as he believes the US has the
situation under control. But he is most unlikely to promise Obama that, under no
circumstances, will Israel act on its own.
“Netanyahu sees the primary
role of the Jewish state as giving the Jewish people the capacity and the right
to defend itself. I don’t see him ever abrogating that right or agreeing to
subcontract out on what is a very real threat to the State of Israel,” a senior
official close to the prime minister tells The Jerusalem Report
civil war in Syria also poses a huge, potentially tectonic strategic challenge.
The US and Israel share two major strategic goals: To see the Assad dictatorship
replaced by a moderate pro-Western regime detached from Iran, and to prevent
chemical, biological and other game-changing weapons from falling into the wrong
hands – for example, al-Qaeda-backed Jihadists or the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah.
In late January, Israeli jets reportedly bombed a convoy near the Syria- Lebanon
border carrying anti-aircraft missiles to Hezbollah, as well as a nearby
chemical and biological research center. Further such Israeli strikes, with full
US backing, cannot be ruled out.
But is there anything Obama and
Netanyahu can do to nullify jihadist and Iranian influence and promote a
pro-Western Syrian regime that breaks with the radical Iranian-led axis? If that
were to happen it would constitute a major shift in the regional balance of
power, with potentially huge repercussions.
Amos Yadlin, a former chief
of military intelligence, suggests that the US should work with Russia to put a
speedy end to the Assad regime and stop the bloodshed. Because the stakes are so
high, Yadlin, the director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National
Strategic Studies, says the US should consider trade-offs with Russia elsewhere.
He also suggests that the US coordinate with NATO and Turkey and enforce a
no-fly zone and bomb installations vital to the Assad regime from Turkish
territory to help bring the war to an end.
The prime minister, however,
Netanyahu does not see the Assad regime collapsing and a
new government taking over any time soon. He believes the more likely scenario
for the months ahead is one of severe fragmentation with different groups in
power in different areas and ongoing civil war. Nor does he hold out much hope
for the eventual emergence of a pro-Western anti-Iranian government.
options in Syria are bad, very bad and worse,” is the aphorism he likes to use,
given the Islamist nature of much of the Syrian opposition. Bottom line: Israel
is not considering intervening in the Syrian conflict in any way – except to
prevent game-changing weapons falling into dangerous hands. “We are focused on
specific weapons systems in Syria, on specific arsenals and who is in control of
them,” the senior official asserts.
Although Obama will not be bringing a
new peace plan, renewal of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will
loom large on his agenda. “We’re not going to go and sort of plunk a plan down
and tell everybody what they have to do. I want to consult and the president
wants to listen,” Secretary of State John Kerry reassured the parties in late
Nevertheless, behind the scenes, the US has been working
intensively with both Israeli and Palestinian negotiators on terms of reference
for a new peace bid, based on a two-state solution. On the Israeli side National
Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror and Attorney Yitzhak Molcho, the prime
minister’s special representative, held talks in Washington in successive weeks
in February and at around the same time chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat
met Kerry in the American capital to discuss terms for renewal of the dormant
Kerry is said to be determined “to the point of obsession”
to achieve a breakthrough Israeli-Palestinian agreement. “So much of what we
aspire to achieve and what we need to do globally, what we need to do in the
Maghreb and South Asia, South Central Asia, throughout the Gulf, all of this is
tied to what can or doesn’t happen with respect to Israel-Palestine,” he
declared in confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Already his staff is preparing proposals for both sides for a
renewal of talks. A few months down the road, this could translate into new
American parameters on all the core issues to push the parties towards closure.
In this context, the Obama visit – which will include talks in Jerusalem and
Ramallah – could help lay the groundwork for a more concerted American peace
In the past, Netanyahu’s position has been readiness to reengage
in talks without preconditions – which the Palestinians interpreted as a return
to square one, jettisoning all the understandings and agreements reached by the
parties in previous negotiations. Netanyahu even refused to accept the principle
of the 1967 borders with land swaps as the basis for territorial negotiations,
after former prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas had come close to a detailed agreement along these lines. The
Palestinians wanted to resume from where Olmert and Abbas left off in 2008;
Netanyahu wanted to start from scratch.
So with Obama due in Jerusalem,
is Netanyahu ready to go further to help lure the Palestinians back to the peace
table? “We are ready to play our part to get talks restarted,” the senior
official says laconically. Although he refuses to elaborate, the formula seems
to indicate an Israeli readiness for mutual concessions to create a new,
realistic basis for talks.
This could lead to new terms of reference
based on concessions and goodwill gestures by both sides, backed by American
security and economic guarantees. For example, Israel could agree to discuss a
territorial agreement on the basis of the 1967 borders with land swaps; the
Palestinians could agree to discuss territory and security first, and defer the
loaded issues of Jerusalem and refugees for later. Israel could free Palestinian
prisoners and freeze building in settlements outside the large settlement blocs;
the Palestinians could recommit to nonviolence, rooting out anti-Israel
incitement and putting an end to all claims on Israel once a permanent agreement
is reached. Some of this could be wrapped up during the Obama
Netanyahu seems more serious this time round about achieving an
agreement with the Palestinians. He has apparently been influenced by growing
international impatience with Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories now
in its 45th year, expressed, for example, in EU High Representative for Foreign
Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton’s recent call on EU countries to
abide by their decision to label goods and produce from the Jewish settlements
in the West Bank. He also believes the Israeli public mood is such that only a
prime minister who does great things stands a chance of reelection. Most
importantly, there is the new American team, champing at the bit to go
His appointment of Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni as a key member of
his negotiating team is an attempt to signal his newfound commitment. The
question though is whether he really is serious about achieving a twostate
solution, or will he do just enough to keep the international community at
Obama and Netanyahu’s late March meeting is unlikely to herald the
beginning of a beautiful friendship. The two men simply cannot abide each other.
But it is imperative that, at this historic juncture, they put their personal
grievances aside for the big picture.