is a translation of an article which appeared in Hebrew only in the Israeli
daily Yedioth Aharonot. I do not believe that an English translation has
been posted but given the upcoming visit of the President to Israel, this
is possibly a very thoughtful analysis of what to expect.
The President’s Visit
Final Arrangements in
the White House
Yedioth Ahronoth (p. 6) by Nahum
Barnea (Washington) -- The walls of the West Wing, the wing with the White
House’s offices, are covered with photographs of the incumbent president at
social events. They star all the members of the Obama family: the president,
his wife Michelle and their two daughters. Their smiles reflect a glamorous and
optimistic world. A world without wars, without enemies; a world that is only
good. The paperwork on the desks of senior National Security Council officials
tell a very different story.
policy of the Obama administration during the president’s first term in office
ran like a film that was fed through the projector backwards, from the end to
the beginning. He won the Nobel Peace Prize even before he had managed to warm
his seat. Then he tried to break conventions that had been a part of American
foreign policy for the course of the twentieth century. He saw Russia and China
as partners, and not adversaries. He traveled to Istanbul and Cairo and called
over the heads of the leaders to turn over a new leaf in terms of the Muslim
world’s attitudes towards America and Western values. His intentions were good.
The results were less so.
In his second
term in office, Obama is restoring American foreign policy to its roots. The
vision is still there, but it is much smaller and more cautious, and it is far
more sober. His most urgent mission is to cut the defense budget drastically.
That is going to have some uncomfortable repercussions on America’s status in
the world, but the administration has no choice: domestic needs take
When I visited
the White House this Thursday, the Jordanian foreign minister and his entourage
were there, as was the Israeli defense minister. Barak came to Washington to
take care of some final arrangements before the outgoing secretary of defense,
Leon Panetta, ends his term in office and before Barak leaves the Defense
Ministry. At issue is a long list of important details that were either agreed
to or not in the course of the frequent conversations between the two
men—ranging from types of munitions to large and small secret understandings.
Barak’s visit evinces Israel’s enormous dependence on the US administration and
is telling of the Israeli concerns about the changing of the guard in the
Pentagon. The relations of trust between Barak and Panetta were the strongest
link in the chain of relations between Washington and Jerusalem. That is not
going to recur.
Ben Rhodes, the
deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, is coordinating
the preparations for the president’s visit to Israel. It is almost certain that
he will write the speech, or speeches, that Obama is going to give in Israel. I
asked him what prompted the president to travel to Israel at the current date,
immediately after the swearing-in of a new government in Jerusalem and before
his new secretary of state, John Kerry, has coped with the problems of the
region. Rhodes replied: The president’s visit isn’t supposed to solve specific
political issues. From our perspective, this is an opportunity to discuss a
broad agenda and to speak directly to the people in Israel.
It would seem
that that sentence sums up the substance of the visit. If Europe, as well as
the Jewish-American Left and the Israeli Left, are expecting the president to
present Netanyahu with a diktat on Iran, settlement construction and/or the
negotiations—those expectations are not going to be met. If the Israeli right
wing is preparing for an historic confrontation—that isn’t going to happen
either. Obama has chosen the current time precisely because it is less binding.
As a high-ranking White House official told me, any other timing would have
obliged the president to focus on a single urgent issue. That official reminded
me that Netanyahu’s visit to Washington last March was devoted entirely to
Iran. Obama would like to expand.
Mainly he wants
to communicate with the Israelis. When he visited Cairo four years ago, he
chose to skip over Israel. That was a mistake, I told the White House official.
The trip to Cairo, the official replied, was geared to turn over a new leaf in
the United States’ relations with the Arab world. Had he gone to Israel, the
conflict would have overshadowed that message.
Either way, in
the past two years various people have urged the president to visit Israel, if
only to strike from the agenda the question of why he hasn’t gone—to mark it on
his checklist and to move on. Dan Abraham, a Jewish-American billionaire who
supports Obama, has been urging him to do so. Peres invited Obama to his
ninetieth birthday. When the White House looked at the dates, they concluded
that now would be the best time to make the visit.
Obama’s desire to
communicate directly with the Israeli people has a political goal. If the
president has the Israelis’ confidence, that is supposed to increase the
maneuvering room available both to Netanyahu and the US administration. When
there is trust, there is no need to respond to every hostile action taken by an
Arab or a Muslim. Restraint can be shown, things can be taken in stride. Obama
isn’t coming to upset—he is coming to reassure.
The next number
of years will put both sides face to face with difficult tests, said the
high-ranking White House official. There have been and there will be
differences of opinion—about settlement construction, for example. But those
differences of opinion have had no impact on the security support for the State
of Israel, including the special aid to finance the Iron Dome system and the
unequivocal support that Israel received during Operation Pillar of Defense.
When differences of opinion come to the fore, the media inflate them until they
look like a crisis. The time has come to move beyond that.
visits to the Middle East stir expectations of a new initiative. That is not
how this visit is being perceived by Washington. The general assumption is that
Obama wants to disengage from the Middle Eastern headache, not to sink into it.
This visit is going to be the fulfillment of an obligation, which will be
followed by nothing. His attention is trained on Asia. The decisive proof is
Obama’s conduct on Syria. His two most senior cabinet ministers, Hillary
Clinton and Leon Panetta, as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA
director, all advised him to announce that the US has decided to arm the Syrian
rebels. Obama rejected that advice, a course of action that could not have been
easy given the seniority of the people giving that advice.
The one person
who does want to get America engaged in active involvement is John Kerry.
Obama’s visit has pushed him to the sidelines. The question is how Obama will
act further on down the road. Will he support a political initiative by John
Kerry or will he flee from it? Another question is how Kerry will act. Kerry
will be coming to the State Department from the Senate. He hasn’t taken orders
or served anyone in 30 years. The assumption is that Kerry is going to have a
hard time adapting to working in the shadow of a president who concentrates
power in his own hands and who does not tend to delegate responsibilities.
The visit to
Israel is supposed to last for two days, including a number of hours in
Ramallah (Obama will be bringing the Palestinians another USD 200 million in
aid). The only other country to be visited is Jordan. One of the interesting
dilemmas is whether to have Obama address the Knesset. Israeli Ambassador to
the US Michael Oren has advised that he do so. White House officials are still
deliberating. They are afraid of right wing MKs interrupting the president with
“He has to
address the Knesset,” I told members of the National Security Council. “The
Knesset is the right stage, the symbol. The Knesset is Jerusalem,” I said. They
Michelle Obama joining?” I asked. “She would easily have won over the
Israelis.” The Obama family has a rule, they replied. Michelle joins her
husband on his trips only when the girls have vacation from school. Since
there’s no vacation, there’s going to be no Michelle.