A lot of people are trying to spin President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel this week in their own image. People on both sides of the divide see this trip designed to re-start the peace process.
The left that think settlements are an impediment to peace and know the President shares that view. So they are hopeful that he will somehow use his personal charm and considerable influence to halt settlement construction with an eye towards re-starting peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Those on the right see the same thing, only instead of supporting it, they are vehemently opposed to it – believing that settlements are not the real issue. They instead see the President’s mission as forcing Israel to stop settlement construction at a time when they need it most (because of natural growth and the perceived (by the right) value of outlying settlements as bulwarks against terrorism).
I think they are both wrong. I don’t see any plan. I see an impasse. I think the President sees that too. If he had any kind of plan that he thinks would have even the slightest chance at success at re-kindling the peace process he would have suggested it by now.
The President doesn’t need face time with Israeli leadership to make these kinds of suggestions. Israeli leaders know full well how important the relationship with the United States is. Even the current Prime Minister bends over backwards to accommodate the President’s wishes whenever he can if he doesn’t see it as compromising their security or other national interests.
I have always maintained that the President is sincere in his attempts to convince both Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate peace in the form of a two state solution believing it to be the best of all possible worlds for all concerned. Whether settlements are an issue on any level can be debated by people of good will. But I don’t think any fair minded observer (and I emphasize fair minded) on either side of the issue can dispute the President’s noble intent.
My view on this issue is somewhere between these two extremes. I do not support settlement building at this time because the gain does not outweigh the loss of good will generated by acceding to the President’s wishes. But I don’t believe they are the main impediment to peace either. With little exception, I would therefore prefer if Israel does not move forward with expansion of settlements at this time. There is no advantage to spitting in the face of the leader of a country that is your biggest supporter. Especially while he’s there. That would be a major mistake.
That said, I do not believe that the President will press Israel to stop settlement during this trip. Not that he has changed his mind. But that he doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to build on the relationship between the two countries.
Unlike some of his biggest detractors, I believe that the President actually likes Israel and values the friendship of the Israeli people. I doubt that he buys into all the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears so frequently from Israel’s enemies. Like accusations that they are guilty of Apartheid for instance. I’m not saying he doesn’t see Palestinian suffering. I’m sure he does. But like me, he understands that their suffering is due in large part from security measures Israel takes because of a history of being attacked by their own people through terrorist organizations like Hamas.
Hamas is still considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. The President never suggested for a moment that Hamas be removed from the State Department list of terrorist organizations. Same thing Hezbollah. Although he may feel that Israel could do better I also believe that he understands Israel’s position and for the most part does not blame them for the suffering of the Palestinians.
I also believe that he values Israel as an important ally as well as a friend. That’s why he approved scarce budget dollars to be spent on the very successful ‘Iron Dome’ anti missile defense system. And why military and intelligence cooperation between the two countries has never been closer! He sees a Israel as a country of shared values and its people much like those of his own country.
The problem is with the way he started off his Presidency with respect to his Middle East foreign policy. Although that too was well intentioned, it was a mistake. He made overtures to the Arab nations by going over there intending to reset the U.S. relationship with them while at the same time being highly critical of their their anti Israel attitude and their revisionist attitude about the Holocaust. But he erred by not visiting Israel as well. Although he did not intend it that way – he in effect snubbed his closest ally in the Middle East.
That began a cycle of mistrust of the President by the Israeli people. He was initially seen as tilting towards the Arabs. He has not fully recovered from that perception. Israel and many of its supporters felt that once he was in the neighborhood he should have at least stopped off and paid his friend a visit. The perception of being snubbed set the tone.
The second thing that further caused a perceived rift was when Israel’s Prime Minister showed poor judgement on his first visit to the White House by publicly lecturing the President. That did not help matters cooling off of the relationship even further– at least publicly. Especially when the President was caught off guard telling the French President what a hard time he had with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Some pundits characterized the relationship between the President and the Prime Minister as one where the two leaders hate each other. I don’t think that is accurate. I’m not saying that they are kindred spirits. But I don’t think ‘hate’ is the right word. I think that the two actually respect each other even while they disagree on some key issues. I do not think Netanyahu is his enemy by any stretch of the imagination – any more than House Speaker John Boehner is.
So why is he going to Israel? I believe that this trip is to repair the negative image he has in Israel. I doubt that he will do or say anything to them about the peace process or settlements – except to perhaps pay some lip service to it.
It is therefore my considered opinion that Israel should put on an unprecedented charm offensive – and treat him like he was – well… the President of the United States and their best friend. They should go out of their way to thank him for the considerable amount of things he has done for them . They ought to make sure that they talk as much as possible about the special relationship between the two countries; their shared democratic principles; and their commitment to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons.
There certainly ought not to be any demonstrations against him by any dissident extremists like the die-hard price-taggers. Although there may be some. As well as demonstrations about Jonathan Pollard – not that it will help him one iota. If any demonstrations do happen I’m sure that the President will see it as an example of the great freedom of expression that Israel grants its citizens – just like the United States does.
The Israeli public’s real concern right now is not the Palestinians. If the last election showed anything it showed that their main concern is how to solve the problem of “sharing the burden.” Meaning what to do about Haredim who insist on remaining exempt from the draft. If the fractious new coalition government has any one thing in common – it is that. To the chagrin of all the Haredi parties, they will have little to say about it having been left out of the coalition. They are now in the opposition.
But I don’t think this will influence any part of the President’s visit to Israel. I doubt that Haredim will be making an issue of this to the President. So after all is said and done I think this trip should be a resounding success that will enhance the relationship between Israel and the United States to an unprecedented level.
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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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