Three goals will dominate President Barack Obama’s coming visit to Israel, his first as president: Convincing Israel and its leadership he means what he says about stopping Iran from building a nuclear weapon, mending a deeply troubled relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and enticing Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Some of the cosmic stars of diplomacy and Middle East reality are lining up to make the visit a success. Others are not. Whatever the outcome, the visit that will also take Obama to the West Bank and Jordan will mark a significant step by the president to dig deeper into a problem that has bedeviled American leaders for decades. Managing expectations, therefore, is essential in the remaining two weeks before Obama sets off on his mission.
Palestinian and Iranian issues dominated Obama’s remarks in a White House briefing with representatives of major US Jewish organizations on Thursday. The president said it would be premature to take a grand peace plan, according to a person at the session who requested anonymity to detail the private remarks. The person said Obama planned to tell Israelis that just wanting peace was not enough, and would ask what hard steps they were willing to take.
On Iran and attempts to sidetrack its nuclear program, Obama said Tehran must be left with sufficient face-saving room to accept a diplomatic solution. The president said he was not “going to do extra chest beating in public” during the visit to Israel just to convince people he is tough, according to the person at the meeting.
He left the talking on that issue earlier in the week to Vice President Joe Biden, who spoke at the Washington gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, America’s most powerful Jewish lobbying organization.
“The president of the United States cannot and does not bluff,” Biden told the group when he turned to US vows to keep Iran from obtaining an atomic bomb. “President Barack Obama is not bluffing.”
Israel views a nuclear armed Iran as a threat to its existence, and Netanyahu has hinted at launching a pre-emptive military strike on the Islamic Republic to set back its nuclear program. Tehran has already enriched enough uranium to 20 percent purity for the country, should it decide to do so, to quickly move toward levels needed for a bomb.
Obama says he won’t let that happen, declaring that a US military attack would be possible should negotiations with Iran fail. Netanyahu, however, needs reassuring. That showed in his words to the same AIPAC conference addressed by Biden.
“From the bottom of my heart and the clarity of my brain, words alone will not stop Iran,” the Israeli leader said, reinforcing his contention that negotiations with Tehran and damaging international sanctions may not stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The Iranians say they are only trying to refine sufficient uranium as fuel for power generation and medical research.
Netanyahu, thus, will want more public reassurances from Washington.
“Obama will have Netanyahu in his pocket if he truly manages to convince him that the United States will use military force if necessary,” said Jonathan Adelman, a professor and Israeli specialist at the University of Denver. “Then, Netanyahu will be comfortable saying: ‘You deal with the Iranians and we will give you serious negotiations with the Palestinians.’”
Aaron David Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center who was a Mideast negotiator under six secretaries of state in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said “Obama needs to have two kinds of conversations” during his visit.
In private, Miller said, the two leaders will have to find a way “to give one another the benefit of the doubt on both Iran and the peace process so they can figure out a way to manage each issue because there is no comprehensive solution.” The men have been “at cross purposes,” he said “because they couldn’t manage that uncertainty in the past.”
The two men got off to a terrible start. Netanyahu visited the president shortly after Obama took office in 2009 and publicly and bluntly rejected Obama’s insistence that Israel stop building Jewish settlements in the West Bank, land that the Palestinians view as the territory that will make up their future state. Obama subsequently dropped the issue, but it remains foremost in the minds of Palestinians, a pre-condition for a return to negotiations about creating a two-state solution — Israel and a Palestinian state living peacefully and side-by-side in a tiny swath of land over which so much blood has been shed.
For that reason, there looks to be little doubt that Obama and Netanyahu will emerge from their meetings, smiling and reassuring their constituencies that the bad blood of Obama’s first term is a thing of the past.
There have been hints, but only hints, that Netanyahu might be ready to again call a halt to expanding settlements — part of a potential deal that would leave those around Jerusalem in place in return for a land swap elsewhere. That’s a bitter pill for the Palestinians, but one they might swallow if the deal were sufficiently sweet. And the Israeli government quickly knocked down such reports on settlements.
Netanyahu is weakened at home after January elections in which his conservative coalition was gravely damaged.
The prime minister has been unable in the ensuing weeks to pull together a new coalition and form a government despite a readiness to shed his former alignment with deeply conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish political powers.
Signaling a shift toward moderation, he has drawn former opposition leader Tzipi Livni into a future government, if it can be formed, to be justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians. Livni’s party promises to push for the two-state solution with the Palestinians. But plenty of hardliners will remain in government.
The hope is that Obama reassurances on Iran will give a politically weakened Netanyahu the needed cover for a move back toward talks with the Palestinians, who are worried that Obama will do too little during his visit to pressure the Israeli leader on the need to resume negotiations.