It should not be forgotten that in the immediate run-up to President Obama’s May 19, 2011 speech at the State Department in which he delivered his “ ‘67 lines” scenario for Middle East peace, the informed buzz among Beltway pundits was that the president would break no new ground with his remarks. So much for informed buzz.
It was precisely for that reason that we became uneasy when we began hearing, seemingly non-stop, that the president intended no new diplomatic initiatives on his upcoming trip to Israel.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, for example, said in a radio interview that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu “agreed that the start of his second term and the new Israeli government will be a good time for him to come and renew the deep connection that is ongoing between Israel and the United States.”
Ambassador Shapiro also said that Mr. Obama hoped to engage in “deep consultation with key partners” concerning “critical regional security issues.” And he emphasized that the most pressing issues facing Israel and the U.S. were the Iranian nuclear program and the possible transfer of Syrian chemical weapons.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney declared that President Obama would not offer up a new peace plan on his visit to Israel. The trip, he insisted, was not connected to any “specific” Middle East peace proposal, adding that pushing for a resumption of direct negotiations was not the purpose of the trip.
But the alarm bells really began to rang with Palestinian reaction to news of the visit. The PA welcomed it, expressing the hope that it would mark the beginning of a new U.S. policy in the Middle East and noting that Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to come to Ramallah to prepare for the president’s visit.
One PA official told The Jerusalem Post, “Obama needs to understand that the ball remains in the Israeli court. We expect Obama to exert pressure on the Israeli government to stop building in the settlements, including east Jerusalem, and release Palestinian prisoners in order to pave the way for the resumption of the peace talks.”
Hanan Ashwari, a member of the PLO executive committee, also welcomed the visit “if it signals an American promise to become an honest and impartial peace broker…which requires decisive curbs on Israeli violations and unilateral measures, particularly settlement activity and the annexation of Jerusalem, as well as its siege and fragmentation policies.”
This was followed by talk of a trilateral summit during the visit to include President Obama, Prime Minister Netanyahu and PA President Abbas – talk that seemed to indicate that much more may be in the making than had been suggested.
Then came a report in Britain’s Sunday Times that President Obama was prepared to substantially increase the heat on Iran over its nuclear program if Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed to open talks with Mr. Abbas on borders and security issues, even if the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees are not raised. Mr. Netanyahu may not have much leverage in the matter, having stated that the Iranian nuclear threat overshadows any dispute with the Palestinians in terms of Israel’s national interests.
The Sunday Times quoted Aaron David Miller, an adviser on the Middle East to six secretaries of state, as saying “Barack Obama does not want to be the American president on whose watch Iran acquires a nuclear weapon or be accused of presiding over the demise of what’s left of the two-state solution.
So contrary to what we were initially led to expect, it appears there will be a significant effort on the part of President Obama during his visit to revive negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. And that is a problem for Israel, because increased U.S. involvement translates into U.S. pressure on Israel to move closer to Palestinian terms for peace.