Less than two months ago a small item appeared in the American Jewish press. It reported that Samantha Power, one of the important architects of Barack Obama’s foreign policy worldview, told a group of congressmen that that President Obama will visit Israel. Power is a very important figure in the circle around Obama. The Israel lobby in Washington sees her as a threat due to a series of critical statements about Israel, but Power is still one of the sharpest foreign policy wonks in Obama’s circle. She is greatly respected and considered a personal friend of Barack Obama.
But a denial came quickly, and came from someone who is a rising star in the Jewish American sphere. Peter Beinart, a senior writer at the Daily Beast and the author of the much discussed (and controversial) book The Crisis of Zionism, put up a very insightful blog post. “It is not possible the confirm the report,” he wrote, “because the report is not true.” He also provided some commentary: White House denials seemed reasonable to him, mainly because they emphasized that what is “starting to emerge” from Washington is a “benign neglect” (like a benign tumor-NE) of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tendency here, wrote Beinart, is to distance the administration from Israel’s troubles and allow the international community to turn it into a pariah state.
Well. A month and a half passed, slightly more, and it became apparent that Samantha Power knows what she’s talking about. It appeared that the denial was premature. More importantly: it became clear that Beinart lengthy commentary about “benign neglect” (what an elegant expression!) was, apparently premature. Distance the administration from Israel’s difficulties? Obama is driving an exceptional initiative and in fact is setting his order of preferences by making the first visit of his second term to Israel. Neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Obama is sending his new secretary of state to Israel for his first foreign trip, and is coming himself. Is there any doubt that it will be a full visit including symbolic meetings; or as David Levy used to say: “very, very full.” It will be a full-on attack of charm in the best presidential tradition, with smiles, jokes, and moving encounters with young people. As the Americans say.
The benign neglect approach, if there was such a thing, has itself been neglected. It’s not that Beinart, himself well connected to the Obama administration, produced the idea from his own imagination. There were those, in Obama’s circle, who proposed that he cut off ties with Netanyahu’s Israel. There’s no chance, they said, to reach an agreement; only a drastic change will bring the Israelis to the political position of dialogue with the Palestinians. The Palestinians, for their part, are split between the extremist Hamas and the weak Palestinian Authority. The whole story is political poison, said a number of people from Obama’s circle, there is no way of winning there; do not make an attempt to create an international legacy there. It won’t happen.
So what happened?
Three main things happened. The first and most important was the Israeli elections. The Americans, like the Israelis themselves, were shocked by the results. All the surveys spoke about a strengthening of the right-wing bloc, even if Netanyahu were weakened, it work to the advantage of Naftali Bennett, someone far worse than Netanyahu in Washington’s eyes. Elections came and revealed to Obama’s people that Israeli society did not decide to reject the idea of two states. In effect, in the Knesset today there are more than 80 MKs who belong to parties that expressed support for the idea of two states. The Likudniks will of course be up in arms; this doesn’t change the facts of the Bar Ilan speech. Even without them, the Center-Left almost achieved a blocking majority. This is very far—even very, very far—from the surveys that predicted 71 mandates for the Right, and that said the peace process was in fact completely dead. The Americans quickly regained their composure and understood that here was a real opportunity. For them, who are trying to advance the two-state principle, the elections were a window they are obliged to enter. Officially the Palestinians have set four conditions for the resumption of negotiations of the peace process. In fact, they will make do with one and a half (mainly the settlement construction freeze), and it seems that even here they will agree to give way. The plan the Americans are examining involves American guarantees to the Palestinians that negotiations will not stretch out over a long period (this is the Palestinian nightmare: free legitimation for Lieberman and Netanyahu), in exchange for Abu Mazen’s coming down from the tree of a settlement construction freeze.
It is very likely that negotiations will be renewed, but the White House is maintaining great caution in this context. The official quotations coming from Washington with respect to the visit did not include words like “peace” or “negotiations.” These expression have simply disappeared from the statements; instead there is talk of “regional issues” and “emphasis of deep commitment to Israel,” as well as “Iran and Syria.” The use of words, in Washington, is always of the greatest importance. No less than the peace process, the regional flare up and the whirlwind in Syria convinced the Americans of the necessity to demonstrate their presence at the highest levels. A presidential visit by Obama broadcasts to the importance actors—Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, extremist groups in Syria—that talk about the dissolution of the American-Israeli pact was premature and exaggerated.
A visit like this produces a dimension of deterrence because it demonstrates the depth of these ties. In addition to deterrence, the Americans have interests that a presidential can effectively advance: Israeli talk about an attack on Iran focus on this coming summer. His arrival, as mentioned, at the Israel Presidential Conference (in June) could have delayed the timing. If the aim were to inspire confidence in the hearts of Israelis that America is covering Israel’s back, it would be best to do that before the policy plans are again drawn from the filing cabinet. Moreover, someone (intelligent) whispered to the White House that new governments in Israel, usually, make their important moves at the beginning. The connection between government formation and Obama’s visit sets the coalition that Netanyahu will form in a very specific light; it is a very different one from the right-wing government that was alienated from the world that Bibi has led over the past few years.
The third matter is that from the very beginning the idea of “benign neglect” was ridiculous. The Middle East conflict is too central, too deep, and too important to play isolationist games with. Israel is a close ally, and whether Obama likes it or not, its involvement in Syria, the intifada in the West Bank, or conflict with Iran will become within seconds a major part of his daily routine. The situation today in the Middle East does not permit him to bury his head in the sand and start to play long-term strategic games whose purpose is to apply increasing pressure on the Israelis and Palestinians. The time is up for that. The situation threatens to spread and swallow up additional actors.
The Americans must act. The responsibility in any case won’t fall on Obama. If violence breaks out in the territories, they will say that American passivity in promoting the peace process was arrogant and disconnected. If Israel attacks Iran on its own and the region goes to war, Obama will be viewed as having failed twice, once in blocking Iran and once in calming Israel. The deterioration in stability on the northern border, something that will most likely happen in any case, will very much preoccupy the US administration. However we look at it, the Americans cannot afford neglect. There is no benign neglect. Any neglect is malignant and America will pay the price (and we will pay double).