Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Waiting for Obama in the shadow of Iran

Waiting for Obama in the shadow of Iran

Boaz Bismuth

Many festive events were organized for the 13,000 delegates from the U.S. as well as Jewish leaders from Europe who descended on Washington for the three-day conference held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The highlight of the conference was undoubtedly the speech delivered by Vice President Joe Biden. In Washington, both the Democrats and the Republicans realized that to move forward they needed to line up behind a single message. Even the large number of Jewish Republicans who came to the conference eagerly listened to and applauded Biden. As evidenced by the vice president's remarks, the administration resolved to warmly embrace Israel with both words as well as deeds, the most dramatic of which is Obama's upcoming visit to the region.

A year ago, the presidential election was the hot topic among AIPAC delegates and guests at the annual soirée. This year, however, Obama's trip to Israel — and not the appointment of Chuck Hagel to the post of defense secretary — was all anyone wanted to talk about.

According to a now debunked report that appeared in World Tribune, immediately after his arrival to Israel on March 20, Obama was to have demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spell out a precise timetable for an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria, a move that Obama supposedly saw as necessary to realize his vision for the establishment of a Palestinian state during his second term in office.

In reality, however, the president has other plans. "This visit will be devoted mainly to gaining the trust of the Israeli public," a senior Washington source told me.

The administration is aware that the political constellation in Israel has changed after the recent election. As such, to more effectively apply pressure and nudge Israel diplomatically, Obama will have to capture the hearts and minds of its citizenry. To that end, the president will do his utmost to mimic one of his successors who knew how to do just that — Bill Clinton.

According to the source, Obama will travel to Israel "even if there is no government in place, since his target audience is the Israeli public, and not the government."

Those planning the president's visit still do not know where his meeting with Israeli government officials will take place, though Obama is scheduled to visit Yad Vashem. He will also lay a wreath at the tombstone of Theodor Herzl, pay a visit to President Shimon Peres at the President's Residence, and meet with Netanyahu.

"He is scheduled to spend two days in Israel, of which five hours will be spent in Ramallah and a few hours will be set aside for sleep," said the source. This doesn't leave much time for surprises or last-minute changes.

If Obama is intent on pushing forward the diplomatic process, he knows that a solution cannot be attained without going through Jerusalem. A senior Washington insider said that the Americans have come to the realization that a warm embrace of Israel is an effective means of goading the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. If Obama were to harden his tone toward the Israelis, it would only make Abu Mazen more averse to resuming talks, since he would see himself as free to make more demands.

As such, Obama knows that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a matter that is very dear to the heart of his new secretary of state, John Kerry, is not the only burning issue in the Middle East. There are also the Syrian and Iranian fronts. As it stands today, the situation in the Middle East poses a very high threshold for the administration. To appreciate the enormity of the challenges, Obama could take a glance at the report Kerry prepared following his recent visit this week to Saudi Arabia.

During the visit, the Americans gained a greater sense of what Abu Mazen and the Palestinians expect from them. More importantly, however, they heard the demands of the Gulf States — in addition to those of Israel — who are eager to see Washington solve the issue of Iran's nuclear program.

The Biden show

At the start of the conference, AIPAC President Michael Kassen warned delegates about the perils posed by the growing winds of isolationism in American politics, the potential consequences of which are "extremely dangerous" for Israel's security and the future of Washington's relations with Jerusalem. The Saudis are also fearful of the prospect of lesser American involvement in foreign relations, though unlike Kassen, they will never admit to this openly for fear of antagonizing Arab public opinion.

The increasingly popular notion of American isolationism in the Obama era clashes with the expectations nurtured by Washington's allies in the region. They want the U.S. to be the judge, policeman, and fireman, a daunting task for a country that wishes to devote more of its energies to urgent domestic problems that will require steep cuts. The average American citizen is sure to feel the pain of austerity.

In U.S. public opinion, Israel is still highly popular. The numbers are similar to those recorded during the first Gulf War, when Israel was besieged by Iraqi Scud missiles. These days, however, the Middle East is hardly at the top of the administration's list of priorities.

The new secretary of state said this week that America's Arab allies in the Middle East expect Washington to first and foremost extinguish the Syrian conflagration, and only afterward to impose a solution or some kind of forced negotiating process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. They also want the U.S. to stop the Iranian nuclear project, which threatens not just Israel but also the Gulf states. That is quite a tall order for an administration which is more intent on lowering its profile in the region.

Obama's America doesn't have the appetite to solve the world's problems on its own. That is why officials in Washington and Moscow resolved to share the workload despite both powers not sharing the same interests.

After Kerry's meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, it was agreed that Moscow would take it upon itself to remind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of the predicament in which he finds himself. The administration has made it clear that it wishes to see Assad depart. The problem, however, is that there are a number of shady figures — jihadists, al-Qaida operatives, and Muslim Brotherhood devotees — who are circling the skies over Syria like vultures.

Not surprisingly, Iran was a major topic of discussion during the conference. In his speech, Biden took a page out of Prime Minister Netanyahu's playbook by creating a linkage between the Iranian nuclear project and the Holocaust.

"We've always disagreed at some point or another on tactic," Biden told the delegates. "But, ladies and gentlemen, we have never disagreed on the strategic imperative that Israel must be able to protect its own, must be able to do it on its own, and we must always stand with Israel to be sure that can happen."

"We especially understand that if we make a mistake, it's not a threat to our existence," the vice president said. "But if Israel makes a mistake, it could be a threat to its very existence."

To illustrate his special connection with the Jewish people, Biden even mentioned the meetings he held with Golda Meir. Some viewed his speech as his opening salvo for the presidential election in 2016. Is he too old to hold office? Ronald Reagan was no novice when he won.

AIPAC officials had every reason to be satisfied, particularly given the 2,000 young delegates who attended the festivities. In his speech, Biden appealed to them, telling them that they are the future. In an ever-changing reality, one thing remains constant for this lobby, and that is its total love and loyalty for the U.S.