Boosting ties

Instead of pressing Israel to freeze construction, Obama should insist that the Palestinians sit at the negotiating table without preconditions.

February 7, 2013 23:17
3 minute read.
Netanyahu and Obama shake hands

Netanyahu and Obama shake hands 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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On several occasions during his first term – particularly at times when it seemed that relations between Jerusalem and Washington were strained – The Jerusalem Post called on US President Barack Obama to visit Israel.

Now the visit is apparently about to happen and we welcome the US president with open arms.

Obama’s visit, which will include a stop in Amman and a West Bank town – most likely Ramallah or Jericho – sends an important message to Israel. That the US president would choose to make Jerusalem the first foreign visit of his second term reflect the importance Washington sees in Israel as an ally and, as US Ambassador Dan Shapiro put it, demonstrates “the depth, breadth and quality of the Israeli-US partnership.”

Despite Obama’s many domestic worries and the growing importance the US sees in cultivating ties with the Far East, the visit is evidence that Washington is willing to devote time and resources to ties with the Jewish state.

Such a visit would do much to fix the impression given during Obama’s last visit to the region in 2009, when the US president failed to visit Israel and addressed his famous “A New Beginning” speech at Cairo University primarily to Muslims.

The agenda during Obama’s upcoming visit include matters of utmost importance to both regional stability and Israel’s security. The most pressing issue is Iran’s unyielding march toward acquiring nuclear weapons. Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will undoubtedly devote a large portion of their meeting to a reevaluation of the impact that sanctions have had on Iran’s regime and updates on the progress of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, including discussion of military options.

Another issue of cardinal importance to Israel is Syria’s huge arsenal of chemical weapons. Acquired over decades, President Basher Assad’s regime has control over one of the world’s largest stockpiles of chemical weapons. As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, a number of dangerous scenarios could be played out. These chemical weapons could fall into the hands of Hezbollah or one of the al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups that has aligned itself with the Syrian opposition. Another possibility is that Assad, with nothing to lose, will unleash the chemical weapons against either his own people or against Israel.

Though White House spokesman Jay Carney said that Obama would not be bringing a new peace plan with him to the region, there has been speculation that jump-starting negotiations with the Palestinians might be another reason for Obama’s visit, especially since Secretary of State John Kerry has expressed his desire to get the sides to sit down and talk.

Nevertheless, the White House is rightly downplaying peace talks. Obama is probably not interested in risking his credibility by building expectations for a breakthrough at a time when the chances for constructive negotiations seem more distant than ever.

And the deadlock in talks is in no small part due to a major policy blunder Obama made during his first term.

By demanding an Israeli construction freeze not just in settlements in Judea and Samaria but in consensus east Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Ramat Shlomo, Obama hardened the Palestinian stance.

The Palestinians could not, after all, be expected to demand anything less than what a US president had demanded, even if in the past Palestinians had been willing to enter into negotiations without the precondition of a building freeze. Obama’s predecessors understood that settlements are a derivative issue – if we and the Palestinians settle borders, the settlement issue can also be solved.

To make headway, Obama must admit his first-term failure. Instead of pressing Israel to freeze construction, the US president should insist that the Palestinians sit at the negotiating table without preconditions.

Even if the Palestinians refuse – which they undoubtedly would – the trip would not be for naught. By taking the time to visit, Obama will be making an important statement about the strong ties that continue to exist between the US and Israel.

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