Obama Israel Trip: A Sign Of Friendship, But President's Priorities Remain Unclear

The president’s visit in Israel was touchy, feely, and theatrical at times. Much attention has been paid to his soaring and indeed appropriate rhetoric about Israel’s ancient history and its modern accomplishments. He met Miss Israel, made jokes in Hebrew, and exchanged friendly ribs with Prime Minister Netanyahu about his handsome sons’ maternal genes.

The substantive discussions, however, dealt with two main issues: Iran and the Palestinians. 

On Iran, Obama seems to have agreed with Netanyahu. The president repeatedly used the phrase that “all options are on the table.” That terminology is widely interpreted to imply that the option of attacking Iran militarily is on the table.  That is in line with the Israeli position that Iran should always fear the possibility of its nuclear installations being attacked. During his joint press conference with the prime minister on Wednesday, the president mentioned Iran seven times, while he only mentioned Palestinians four times.

That suggests to the Israelis that the president is on board with them.

Halfway through his speech in Jerusalem on Thursday, the President switched gears. He focused on the Palestinians for the second half of his speech. He mentioned them 23 times, compared to only 8 mentions of Iran. While discussing the changing landscape of the Middle East, he emphasized that “progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin.”  He then listed Palestinian grievances: “A Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own,” “it is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands,” and in passing implied Israeli responsibility. In the same breath he referred to “when (Israeli) settler violence goes unpunished.”

But the president missed the point that Palestinian suffering exists for the same reason as the suffering of their Arab brethren: dictators run their society. The Palestinian Authority has governed the lives of 95% of Palestinians for 20 years since the Oslo Accords. They have held exactly one free election, jailed political dissidents, and fought a civil war. 

On the other hand, it should be noted that the president did tell Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas, to negotiate with Israel without preconditions. That is a departure from Obama’s first term position that Israel needed to halt settlement construction as a pre-condition to talks. 

After terrific rhetoric throughout the Presidential trip, this part of the speech may have re-opened debate on whether the President understands Israel’s position. But the bigger question Middle Easterners are now asking is what his priority is. Is it Iran, the Palestinians, or something else?

The president can answer that question by who he sends to Israel after he returns to Washington.  

As of now, we know that John Kerry will stay behind to try to restart talks with the Palestinians. If that is any indication of the President’s priorities, it is not a good sign. It means the Iranians can rest comfortably and America’s allies should be worried.  It would mean that the administration has its eyes off of the ball.

An alternative or additional course would be to send Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Israel in the coming weeks. A meeting between the new Secretary of Defense and Israel’s new Defense Minister would send a message of American resolve.  It would send a message to the Iranians that Obama meant what he said about them. It would imply that Obama and Netanyahu are truly working together on the Iranian issue, and that there are real plans in the works.

With new administrations in both countries — including a new Israeli Defense Minister and new American Secretary of Defense — now is an opportunity to press a real reset button; one that is heard by the tyrants in Tehran.

And as the Iranians continue their recently restarted negotiations with the West, their perception of the Obama-Netanyahu meetings — whether they are cooperating on Iran or quibbling about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — will make a huge difference. It can mean the difference between an emboldened Iran that stalls for time, or a nervous Iran ready to make concessions.

With all of the problematic players in the region, only one is on the verge of going nuclear. It is important to remember that the introduction of nuclear weapons in to the Middle East is at stake.

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Alan Levine

Alan Levine is currently completing his master's degree in Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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