What to expect when you’re expecting Obama

VP Biden's AIPAC speech indicates American stance that still sees importance of Israel's security needs.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
With US President Barack Obama scheduled to make his much-anticipated maiden visit to Israel as president in two weeks, there is much speculation about his intent.
And much of that speculation reflects more the hopes and fears of those speculating than any real, inside information about what the president truly has in mind.
Some say that Obama is coming with an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan that he will drop on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and others that he is not coming with a full-blown plan, but rather with demands of a timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.
Some say he is coming to apply pressure on Netanyahu not to take precipitous action against Iran, others say while here he will announce the freeing of Jonathan Pollard.
But it is all just that – speculation.
Nevertheless, at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington on Monday, the more than 12,000 attendees heard three speeches – by Netanyahu (taped), Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and US Vice President Joe Biden – that when looked at carefully could give a hint as to what direction the Obama trip was headed.
This visit, it emerges from the speeches, will be long on appreciation – Israel for the US’s support, the US for Israel’s precarious security situation – and short on public disagreements.
Not that the disagreements will not be there – over the settlements, over how much time to give Iran – but they are unlikely to burst out into the open. Obama is not traveling to Israel to publicly bicker with Netanyahu.
“While we may not always agree on tactics – and I’ve been around a long time; I’ve been there for a lot of prime ministers – we’ve always disagreed on tactic,” Biden said. “We’ve always disagreed at some point or another on tactic. But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen. And we will.”
Biden was trotted out to AIPAC as an opening act for Obama’s visit. And, just as at every rock concert the type of music played by the warm-up band is not going to be fundamentally different from the genre played by the main attraction (a heavy metal band, for example, will not open for Barry Manilow), Obama’s tone is unlikely to significantly differ from the one Biden used Monday.
And Biden’s tone was both very warm and realistic, two qualities that critics of Obama’s Israel policy said he lacked during his first four years in office. Biden’s speech was chock full of understanding of what Israel means for the Jews after the Holocaust, and his own special feeling towards the country; as well as with an appreciation of the region’s changing sands, and how that impacts upon Israel’s room to maneuver.
“We both know that Israel faces new threats, new pressures and uncertainty,” Biden said. “The Arab Spring, at once full of both hope and uncertainty, has required Israel – and the United States – to reassess old and settled relationships.”
Those words are pleasing to those in Jerusalem, like Netanyahu, who argue that it is impossible to proceed with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians – one that will demand that Israel take risks – while ignoring the dramatic changes among its neighbors that make Israel more, not less, risk averse.
Barak’s speech was instructional of Israeli thinking because he spoke of the Middle East as “a Gestalt – everything depends on everything.”
After stressing that Israel means what it says that “all options are on the table” when it comes to Iran, Barak added there was a need for the building of a “regional security framework” to deal with “the common challenges” of radical Islamist terror, border security, and missile defense.
The ability to put together such a framework will depend on progress on the Israeli- Palestinian track. And here Barak gave cues as to where Jerusalem was heading: “I know a fully fledged agreement is probably not feasible today, But if this is the case – and only a sincere effort can determine this – we have to try and achieve a reasonable, fair, interim agreement. I strongly believe this is possible, while guaranteeing all our security and vital interests.”
And if that was not possible, he said, if even an interim agreement was unobtainable, “then we should consider unilateral steps in order to place a wedge on this extremely dangerous slippery slope towards a binational state.”
Here, seeming to speak more for himself than for Netanyahu, Barak said these steps involved “demarcating a line within the land of Israel.” That line, he said, would place within Israel “the settlement blocs and a solid Jewish majority for generations to come. As well as setting security arrangements, and a solid Israeli, long-term military presence along the River Jordan.”
Netanyahu also made clear what could be expected from him during the visit. First, he said as a signal that he wanted to start afresh with the president with whom he had a rocky relationship over the last four years, the trip would afford an opportunity to express his and the country’s “appreciation for what he [Obama] has done for Israel.”
He spelled out to AIPAC the main issues on the agenda, in their order of importance: Iran; Syria, and only then the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s remarks to AIPAC showed the degree to which he still believes in the importance of defining a red line for Iran beyond which they must not be allowed to cross, even though nobody else in the world – except for him – has drawn such a line.
“Words alone will not stop Iran; Sanctions alone will not stop Iran,” he said. “Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.”
He also underlined in his speech that Syria could soon become a “strategic crisis, one of monumental proportion,” and that it was necessary to strategize with the US on how to deal with this issue now.
“Syria is a very poor country, but it has chemical weapons, anti-aircraft weapons, and many other of the world’s most deadly and sophisticated arms,” he said.
Then, using a vivid metaphor, he added, “Terror groups such as Hezbollah and al-Qaida are trying to seize these weapons as we speak. They are like hyenas feeding off a carcass – and the carcass is not even dead yet.”
As for the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu indicated that rather than shooting for a “grand bargain,” what is needed – and surely what he will advocate with Obama – is a “measured step-by-step process in which we work to advance to a verifiable, durable and defensible peace.”
Israel is prepared for “meaningful compromise,” he said, adding – however – that “I will never compromise on our security.”
Obama will be trying to bridge both parts of that equation – “meaningful compromise” – with security. If the Biden speech is any indication, the president’s attempt this time will be done with an ear more sensitive to Israeli sensibilities.