What will Obama bring?

Among the vexing issues that US President Barack Obama will be addressing in his upcoming Mideast trip is Iran's nuclear weapons drive

Obama and Airforce One 521 (photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
Obama and Airforce One 521
(photo credit: JASON REED / REUTERS)
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 months.
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.
The visit 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 intelligence.
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 Netanyahu.
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 wants.
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 action.
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 late.
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.
The 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, is skeptical.
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.
“Our 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 February.
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 peace process.
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 in January.
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 drive.
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 visit.
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 forward.
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 bay.
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.