An American president in Jerusalem

The Obama visit could be a new beginning in the US-Israel relationship in the sense that it will reemphasize the important existing elements in the relationship, but also examine what should still be done to strengthen it further.

Obama address 390 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Obama address 390
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
This week’s American presidential visit to Israel puts the spotlight not only on the US-Israel relationship in general, but perhaps more importantly, also on the context of American and Israeli strategic concerns and interests.
President Barack Obama’s planned Iron Dome photo-op at Ben-Gurion International Airport is symbolic of the high level of security-based partnership between the two countries in such matters as prepositioning of US arms and equipment; missile defense in its wider aspects; and intelligence issues, as well as different classified matters. Without the American military-related aid to Israel, which serves both Israeli and American strategic interests, much of the above would not have been possible.
Click here for full JPost coverage of Obama's visit to Israel
To sensation-hungry journalists, the titillating relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is a favorite topic, but though personal chemistry does sometimes play a role in international relations – either positive, like between Golda and LBJ and Nixon, or negative, such as at least intermittently between Shamir and Bush 41 – what really mattered then, and does now, are the respective diplomatic, strategic and often political (on both sides) interests.
Talking about the present, Obama took account of this when he decided to go to Jerusalem, as did Netanyahu, but the incalculably more important reset in the US-Israel relationship must focus on the altered situation in the world, and especially the broader Middle East – all the way from the Maghreb and the Sahel and Mali to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and, of course, nuclearizing Iran and disintegrating Syria and how this will impact the US-Israel alliance in coming years.
Another point to consider in this respect is Turkey, which under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stewardship seems to be bent on throwing as many spanners as possible into the works of its bilateral ties with Israel, negatively affecting the strategic equation in the region as well.
BUT IN Israel and in America, those who care about the special relationship between the two countries and peoples, which is based both on common strategic interests but also on shared values, also ask themselves if and how this relationship might in the future be influenced by a perception, even a false one, of a “declining” America not yet isolationist but certainly more inward-looking.
An important, soon-to-bepublished book called The Dispensable Nation by Vali Nasr, a former senior Obama administrative insider who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the dean of the Johns Hopkins Institute of Advanced International Studies, claims that with regard to Afghanistan, for instance, the goal of policy-makers was “not to make strategic decisions, but to satisfy public opinion” and that “a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics” made US policy.
Though the book focuses mainly on Afghanistan, the implications could be much wider. As one commentator who saw an advance copy of the book put it, “The book only confirms the general impression that Obama is a man without a foreign policy. He had naïve aspirations, a world to be changed by the transformative power of a good speech, but no clear path to achieve anything.
It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations,” a statement reminiscent of the oft-quoted Kissinger remark that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy.
A related subject of debate in think tanks both in Washington and in Israel is the imagined or real philosophical and ideological attitudes of the president toward the Arab and Islamic worlds, whether this could have potential negative repercussions on the US-Israel relationship and how Israel should cope with it.
NATURALLY, IT is not for Israelis to define American strategic interests, but it is for us to try to understand them, and if necessary, sometimes question them when they concern us, but always with the aim of minimizing, and if possible, avoiding contentions.
For example, will US strategic interests in the Middle East in the foreseeable future still be driven by energy concerns or will its growing energy independence divert it to a different course? And what in concrete terms does “pivoting from the Middle East to Southeast Asia” mean? And perhaps most urgently, how much have the developments and turmoil in the Arab World changed the former (or perhaps still extant) conventional wisdom in Washington that the Israel-Palestinian problem supposedly was the main reason for instability in the region and for the problems the US faces there? That said, one way or another, the Palestinian problem will also be on the table in Jerusalem. America’s position in this regard has always been a bit anomalous: Historically it never played the lead role in actually initiating concrete moves toward peace – not with Egypt, not with Jordan, not with the Palestinians and in the latter case, when it did, it was usually unsuccessful. But, on the other hand, no move toward peace would have been completed without an active role by the US.
Thus, the president will probably refrain, wisely, from so-called initiatives, though it would help if he were to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, getting them down from the high tree they got themselves onto, among other things because of the administration’s admitted missteps during its first term.
Albeit, in realistic terms, it must be clear that a conclusive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t be found anytime soon, and the mantra that everything is supposedly clear along the “Clinton proposals,” like most mantras, can’t be proven.
And last, but certainly not least, Iran. In this matter, there is today less space between Israel and the US than in the past. Still, what do the statements that “America will not let Tehran have the bomb” and that “all options are on the table” mean in real terms? This question has now acquired special urgency in view of the progress in the Iranian nuclear efforts and the apparent failure of the sanctions and diplomacy to put a stop to them.
The Obama visit could be a new beginning in the US-Israel relationship in the sense that it will reemphasize the important existing elements in the relationship, but also examine what should still be done to strengthen it further.
No less important, it is an opportunity to reinforce mutual trust and openness between the two leaders.
The author served as Israeli ambassador to the US in 1990- 1993 and 1998-2000.