When President Barack Obama delivers his main address in Israel this week, it won’t be to the nation’s parliament. Instead, his audience will largely consist of students.
Obama, who departs late today, is seeking leverage with Israel’s elected officials in his first trip there since taking office by reaching out to the Israeli public. On the national security issue uppermost in that nation’s politics, Iran’s nuclear threat, he wants more time for sanctions to work, rather than military action.
The direct appeal to the people in America’s closest Middle East ally reflects Obama’s tense relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has made it harder to resolve differences over issues ranging from Iran to the expansion of Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. As a result, the peace process has been hindered and there has been rising Israeli confusion about U.S. intentions.
“President Obama needs to convince the Israeli public to trust him,” said Shlomo Brom, a retired general who’s now a senior research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies. “If the U.S. asks Israel to halt a military attack against Iran, it needs the trust of Israelis that when push comes to shove, the U.S. will take action.”
For Obama, who also plans to visit the West Bank and Jordan, the trip comes at a time of political opportunity. He decisively won re-election in November, becoming the first U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower to take at least 51 percent of the popular vote twice, while an Israeli vote in January weakened Netanyahu. In an election focusing largely on domestic issues, Israelis gave the prime minister less of a mandate than four years ago, forcing him to seek a new coalition.
Obama’s bid to connect with the Israeli population won’t be easy: Just a third of Israelis described the president’s attitude toward Israel as favorable, while 38 percent said he’s hostile, in a survey by the Maagar Mohot Institute and the Israeli daily Ma’ariv released March 15.
Still, both Israelis and Palestinians have expressed concern about the impact of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, with about 80 percent saying that an attack would ignite a major regional war, according to a joint Israeli-Palestinian survey taken in September.
At the same time, Obama will make fresh attempts to reach out to the nation’s politicians with whom his relations either have been complicated or non-existent.
There is a “pressing need” to strengthen ties between Netanyahu and Obama, said Gilead Sher, who was chief of staff to former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and is founding co-chairman of Blue White Future, a group that advocates for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“There’s kind of a collage of interests, emotions, personal chemistry and national interests,” he said. “I think they both will make genuine efforts to mend the relationship between them for the benefit of both nations.”
Netanyahu has been critical of Obama’s stance on Iran as too soft, and the Israeli leader heaped praise on Obama’s general election rival last year, Mitt Romney.
The strain between the men began soon after Obama took office in 2009. He pushed Israel to freeze construction of settlements in Palestinian areas in an effort to restart peace talks. After 10 months and failed peace talks, Netanyahu approved more.
Complaint to Sarkozy
In November 2011, journalists at a Group of 20 summit in France overheard Obama acknowledge French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s dislike for Netanyahu by complaining that he had to deal with the Israeli leader more than the French president did.
Netanyahu, addressing the United Nations General Assembly last September, held up a cartoon-style drawing of a bomb in urging the U.S. to issue a more direct warning to Iran.
“By next spring, at most next summer, at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and moved on to the final stage,” he said.
Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to U.S. secretaries of state on Arab-Israeli negotiations, wrote this month in the Washington Post: “It’s been clear from the beginning that Obama and Netanyahu were doomed to dysfunction.” Miller, vice president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, added, “This odd couple’s ties are the most tenuous we’ve seen between the White House and Jerusalem.”
Obama departs on the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and a week before Passover, which celebrates the liberation of ancient Jews from slavery in Egypt.
White House advisers were undecided late into last year on whether the president should visit Israel without progress toward peace with the Palestinians, said Steven Simon, who until a few months ago was Obama’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa on the National Security Council.
The prospect of a premature trip backfiring argued against it, said Simon, who is executive director of the U.S. branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Washington.
One argument for the trip was that Obama need to erase lingering doubts by Israelis and among some American Jews about his commitment to Israel. Some Jews were frustrated that while Obama had visited Cairo in 2009 and reached out to the Muslim world, he hadn’t been to Israel since a campaign trip in 2008.
“If you can lubricate the gears by taking care of something that has rankled the Jewish community despite everything the Obama administration did on Israel’s behalf,” Simon said, that could go “a long way” toward fashioning a united front on challenges like Iran.
To build that trust, Obama on Thursday will address an audience of university students and others, rather than speak before the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. He’ll view the Dead Sea Scrolls; visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem; and see the Iron Dome missile-defense system that his administration has supported.
At Ben Gurion University, Nati Hasson, a 30-year-old MBA candidate and the chairman of the student union, said the campus is “totally crazy about the Obama speech.”
That address, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, will focus on security, peace and the economy, the White House said.
Obama won’t find universal support, Hasson said: “The young generation here is definitely split between right and left. They’re pretty radical on both sides.”
Then-President George W. Bush spoke at the Knesset when he came to Israel in 2008; Netanyahu addressed Congress, where he received 29 standing ovations, when he visited Washington in 2011.
While no near-term progress is seen on Israeli-Palestinian peace, Obama will make the case that the upheavals in Syria, Egypt and throughout the Arab world make it imperative to try.
Israel’s economic growth eased to 3.1 percent in 2012 from 4.6 percent the previous year, the statistics bureau said on March 10. Excluding first-time natural-gas revenue, growth is expected to shrink further in 2013, according to the central bank. The cost of protecting Israeli government debt against non-payment through five-year credit-default swaps has reached a two-year low of about 120.7, according to data provider CMA.
Obama previewed his visit to the Israeli public on March 14, appearing on Israel’s Channel 2 television.
Iran is “over a year or so” away from building a nuclear weapon, Obama said. He pledged that “all options are on the table” if diplomacy fails to force Iran to abandon its pursuit.
Israeli and U.S. officials “have different thresholds and time frames,” said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “The president talks about preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Israelis, in contrast, emphasize preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.”
“That one small word, ‘capabilities,’ makes a big difference in Israeli and American positions,” Malka said.
The trip includes meetings with Palestinians in Ramallah and with King Abdullah in Jordan. In the Israeli television interview, Obama said working toward a two-state solution with Palestinians is “the best and only path forward.”
When he arrives in the West Bank, Obama will find the Jewish settler movement resurgent, Palestinians approaching financial ruin, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, promoting a new violent uprising.
That largely explains why the president says he won’t try to engineer a new Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement during this visit. “My goal on this trip is to listen,” Obama said in the Channel 2 interview.
Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev said at a press conference in Jerusalem today that the prime minister “is ready for mutual, reciprocal confidence-building measures to bolster a process that is moving forward.” He cited “groundwork” by Netanyahu negotiator Yitzhak Molcho as well as Netanyahu’s appointment of Justice Minister Tzipi Livni to manage negotiations.
Any U.S. effort to help restore faith in a two-state solution will meet a skeptical reception in Ramallah, where Palestinians are still fuming over the Obama administration’s vote against Palestinian statehood at the UN.
“He clearly doesn’t want us to expect much,” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a telephone interview from Ramallah.
Mustafa Barghouti, another Abbas adviser, quipped that Obama might come up with new ideas to resolve the conflict when he visits Bethlehem March 22. At the Church of the Nativity, “we hope a miracle will occur,” Barghouti said today at a press conference in Ramallah.
On both Iran and the peace process, Obama’s approach to the trip is more about risk management than breakthrough, said Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
“He cannot afford to be the president on whose watch Iran acquires nuclear weapons capacity,” Miller said. “And he cannot and does not want to be the president on whose watch the two-state solution expires.”