U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned visit here this month aims to shore up public support for the White House’s Mideast agenda and reset relations with the presumptive new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AFP)
TEL AVIV — U.S. President Barack Obama’s planned visit here this month aims to shore up public support for the White House’s Mideast agenda and reset relations with the presumptive new government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Billed as a charm offensive by one advance planner here, Obama’s first presidential visit to Israel seeks to repair the often stormy ties that clouded the four-year terms of both re-elected leaders.
And while significant gaps remain in their respective strategies on preventing a nuclear-armed Iran and ways to advance a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, both leaders have communicated their resolve to strengthen bilateral cooperation.
“The first thing my new government will have the privilege to do is to warmly welcome President Obama to Israel,” Netanyahu told a March 4 annual gathering in Washington of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the powerful pro-Israel lobby, via video link from Jerusalem.
According to Netanyahu, the two leaders agreed to focus discussions on three issues: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the deteriorating situation in Syria and “the need to find a responsible way to advance peace with the Palestinians.”
In parallel, Obama plans to appeal directly to the Israeli public — and indirectly to pro-Israel members of Congress — to support revived Palestinian peace talks and additional maneuvering room for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran before resorting to military force.
“The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,” the White House announced.
Assuming that Netanyahu meets a March 16 deadline for forming a coalition government, Obama will arrive here early March 20 and depart for Amman, Jordan, on March 22 following a visit to an Iron Dome missile intercepting battery.
His itinerary includes a state reception with Israeli government leaders, a private meeting at Netanyahu’s home, a joint news conference and a public town hall address. Obama also plans to spend several hours March 21 in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and political, business and academic figures.
While Obama is pressing for more time to allow diplomacy and sanctions to derail Iran’s nuclear weapons drive, Netanyahu’s earlier dubiousness has hardened.
“Diplomacy has not worked. ... [And] thus far, the sanctions have not stopped the nuclear program either,” Netanyahu told the AIPAC policy conference. Warning that Iran is using negotiations for “running out the clock,” Netanyahu insisted on Israel’s right to defend itself against what it viewed as an existential threat.
“Words alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. ... The Jewish people know the cost of being defenseless against those who would exterminate us. We will never let that happen again.”
Obama, a U.S. source here said, will again attempt to persuade Netanyahu that he is prepared to use the military option against Iran should diplomacy and sanctions fail, but that more time is needed to galvanize international support for a prospective attack.
“Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff. And President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden told last week’s AIPAC gathering. “If, God forbid, the need to act occurs, it is critically important for the whole world to know we did everything in our power. ... If we have to act, it’s important that the rest of the world is with us.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel conveyed a similar message in his March 5 Pentagon meeting with outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
‘Backdoor to War’
Americans for Peace Now (APN), a Washington-based pro-Israel affiliate of Israel’s left-of-center Peace Now organization, is urging U.S. senators to oppose an AIPAC-backed resolution sanctioning a prospective unilateral Israeli attack on Iran.
APN contends that Senate Resolution 65, introduced late last month, constitutes a “backdoor to war,” since it “effectively gives a green light for military action against Iran that, if carried out, would almost certainly require the United States to join the fight.”
Sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and nearly two dozen other senators thus far, the resolution — while nonbinding — grants “unqualified, unconditional, advance approval for Israeli military action against Iran, including Israeli-defined preventive self-defense,” according to APN.
Recalling concern expressed last August by Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the U.S. should not be complicit in a prospective Israeli attack, APN says the resolution effectively delivers such complicity.
“With this resolution, the Senate is being asked to formalize such complicity, in defiance of the Obama administration’s policy and in defiance of the judgment of top U.S. military leaders,” according to APN.
Furthermore, the organization insists the language misrepresents U.S. policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon to one of preventing Iran’s capability for acquiring nuclear weapons.
“This misstatement of policy … shifts the red line with respect to Iran and lowers the bar for war,” according to APN.
More Harm Than Good
While Iran is likely to dominate the bilateral agenda, security sources here said Obama’s visit must include meaningful discussion on tangible steps needed to break deadlocked peace talks with the Palestinians.
“If he doesn’t come to advance this issue, it’s better that he not come. If he comes only to deal with the Iran issues, he shouldn’t visit [Abbas] in the territories,” said Yitzhak Ilan, the recently retired deputy director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service.
In an interview published March 1 in Israel’s Yediot Ahronot, Ilan said that Obama’s visit, if devoid of meaningful diplomacy, could actually hasten a renewed outbreak of West Bank violence.
“A visit to the territories creates expectations. If the results of the visit will be more frustration and disappointment, one should expect that to translate into violence,” Ilan told the Israeli daily.
In his AIPAC address, Biden said the White House is committed to engaging both sides to take “hard steps” needed to bring about a two-state solution and will make this clear in his upcoming visit.