Rabbi Guttman's Writings

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This 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.

The foreign 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 precedence.

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.

Presidential 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 insulting heckling.

“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 took note.

“Why isn’t 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.