Obama – Friendship and Empathy

The Israelis who expected Obama to pressure Netanyahu during his Israel visit sold the U.S. president short.

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By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on March 27, 2013)

Those Israelis who predicted that a rancorous Barack Obama, having been reelected to his second term and freed of the pressures that weighed on him during the campaign, would now vent his anger on Benjamin Netanyahu sold Obama short.

He arrived in Israel a great deal wiser about the complexities of the Middle East than he was four years ago. He now better understands Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Arab Spring and the Israeli political scene. The president has learned a lot these past four years – years of tension between his administration and the Netanyahu government. No doubt, there has been a reset in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Obama’s accolades for Israel during his visit were music to the ears of most Israelis. There may even be Israelis who are not completely in accord with these compliments. But Obama sees the splendor of Israel and recognizes the historical connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. He knows that Israel was not established because of the Holocaust, as he indicated in his speech in Cairo four years ago, but rather that the State of Israel is here to prevent another Holocaust, as he stated during his visit to Yad Vashem.

He even went so far as to tell Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah that if he tries to get everything right before negotiations with Israel begin, negotiations will never take place. So he counseled the Palestinian president to drop the requirement that settlement activity in Judea and Samaria cease as a condition for resuming talks. Abbas, most certainly, has not forgotten that it was Obama, four years ago, who called for a stop to settlement activity. This time Obama limited himself to describing settlement activity as “counterproductive,” leaving Abbas high and dry.

Make no mistake about it, Obama believes in the two-states-for-two-peoples formula and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. It may seem just and fair in the eyes of Obama and many others, but is it possible? How is it going to come about?

That’s a question that may have occurred to Obama as he flew to Amman, the capital of another Palestinian state. The past ruler of that country, King Hussein, decided to disconnect from the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria, which had been granted Jordanian citizenship during the years of Jordanian rule (or occupation? ) and made peace with Israel. Now, as Obama emphasized during his speech in Jerusalem, Israel will have to make peace with people, rather than autocratic rulers.

So will the peace with Jordan hold? And will the peace with Egypt hold? And is peace at all on the horizon with the Muslim forces that will eventually take over in Syria? All would agree that making peace with the people of a country is far better than making peace with an autocratic ruler, but do the people of the Arab countries want peace with Israel?

And what about Gaza, the Palestinian mini-state ruled by a terrorist organization, Hamas? Is Hamas’ agreement required for a peace treaty between Palestinians and Israel? If not, would a treaty with Abbas really mean the end of the conflict, or would it be followed by further Palestinian demands of Israel after the concessions called for by the treaty have already been made by Israel?

It might seem easy to arrive at an accommodation if Jordan were prepared to assume the role of the Palestinian interlocutor. Even solving the problems of Palestinian geographic contiguity might then not be impossible. But Jordan’s ruler, as we know so well, feels that he has enough Palestinians in Jordan already and fears that any addition might destabilize his regime. And that’s the last thing Israel and the United States desire. Obama might have thought about this as he winged his way back to Washington.

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