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Obama faces daunting tasks in Israel

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On his first trip abroad since his re-election last November, U.S. President Barack Obama is due to visit Israel, as well as Jordan and the Palestinian territories in the West Bank, next week.

Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador in Tel Aviv, has characterized the trip as an opportunity to deepen mutual understanding.

Obama, he said in a preview, intends to showcase “the depth, breadth and quality” of the United States’ strategic partnership with Israel and to discuss issues of common importance ranging from Iran’s budding nuclear program to the breakdown of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But on a more immediate level, the objective of Obama’s visit, from March 20 to 22, is to try to smooth over the rough edges of his often contentious personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who served under six secretaries of state in both Democratic and Republican administrations, has described the dynamics of their relationship as “the most dysfunctional” ever between an American president and an Israeli prime minister. They not only “mistrust one another” but exhibit “very little confidence” in each other, he noted.

In Miller’s view, their strained relationship is unique in the annals of America’s alliance with Israel because it has been left to fester for so long. He points out that previous American and Israeli leaders had sharp disagreements, citing Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin in the 1980s and George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir in the 1990s. But they managed to bury their differences in common causes.

Carter and Begin worked together, if not always harmoniously, to ensure that Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Bush and Shamir co-operated in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.

But when it comes to Obama and Netanyahu, not even a shared antipathy to Iran’s nuclear ambitions has diminished the friction. Nor can Obama forget that Netanyahu appeared to tilt toward Mitt Romney, the Republican Party candidate, in the last presidential election.

Blogging on the Bloomberg website, Jeffery Goldberg, a U.S. writer close to Obama, drew a scathing indictment of Netanyahu’s policies. Writing as Obama’s mouthpiece, Goldberg observed, “Iran poses a short-term threat to Israel’s survival [but] Israel’s own behaviour poses a long-term one.”

According to Goldberg, Obama – who last visited Israel in 2008 when he was a presidential candidate – regards Netanyahu as “a political coward” who’s unwilling “to lead or spend political capital” to advance talks with the Palestinians.

Obama, he adds, is convinced that Netanyahu is “so captive to the settler lobby, and so uninterested in making anything more than the slightest conciliatory gesture toward Palestinian moderates, that an investment of presidential interest in the peace process wouldn’t be a wise use of his time.”

Goldberg goes on to say that Obama believes that “Israel’s settlement policies are foreclosing on the possibility of a two-state solution,” which, he thinks, represents “the best chance of preserving [Israel] as “a Jewish-majority democracy.” Quoting Obama on the eve of its Jan. 22 general election, Goldberg wrote, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”

In a withering riposte, Netanyahu declared that “only Israeli citizens will be the ones who determine who faithfully represents the vital interests of Israel.”

Despite the harsh tone of Obama’s critique, Obama, in his recent State of the Union speech, reaffirmed that the United States “will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.” Leon Panetta, the outgoing U.S. secretary of defence, was just as emphatic, saying that Washington’s relationship with Jerusalem is “stronger than any time in history” and grounded in shared values and an “iron-clad commitment” to Israel’s existence.

Chuck Hagel, Panetta’s successor, was criticized for being soft on Iran and hard on Israel. He has since apologized for his “very poor choice of words” in having referred to a “Jewish lobby” in the United States, pledged to maintain Israel’s military superiority and promised to support economic sanctions against Iran.

The new American secretary of state, John Kerry, who will accompany Obama to Israel, has made it clear that the president is going to Jerusalem “to listen” rather than to present a concrete proposal to thaw out the frozen Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Early in his presidency, Obama called for a complete settlement freeze and denounced settlements as “illegitimate.” Subsequently, he called for a peace accord based on an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and mutual Israeli and Palestinian land swaps.

Netanyahu, a supporter of the settlement movement, rejected Obama’s plan and continues to build in eastern Jerusalem and expand existing settlements in the West Bank.

In the face of Israel’s moves, the Obama administration has stood its ground. “We… oppose unilateral actions on the Israeli side… as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations and risk prejudging the outcome of those negotiations,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel said recently, just weeks before Obama appointed Philip Gordon, a seasoned diplomat, as his new co-ordinator for Middle East affairs.

With respect to Iran, Obama will probably bring a mixed message with him when he arrives in Israel. On the one hand, as Kerry said in February, the United States categorically rejects a nuclear-armed Iran and has warned that “the window for a diplomatic solution cannot remain open forever.” But on the other hand, Washington is opposed to a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran.

Last month, in the wake of a comment by Netanyahu setting mid-2013 as a “red line” for halting Iranian uranium enrichment, two top U.S. officials reassured Israel of the Obama administration’s determination to prevent Iran from becoming an atomic power.

Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs and the chief U.S. negotiator in world power talks with Iran, both reiterated Washington’s policy on this key issue in visits to Jerusalem.

After hearing an update from Sherman on the latest round of talks, held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Israeli President Shimon Peres expressed satisfaction that the United States would do whatever possible to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Last week, touching on this theme, U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden said that the United States is “not bluffing” in its resolve to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

With a civil war raging in Syria and spilling into adjacent countries, Syria will be another topic Obama and Netanyahu will surely address. Israel and the United States concur that President Bashar Assad must go and that Syrian chemical weapons should not fall into the wrong hands, namely Hezbollah.

Netanyahu will ask Obama to release convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who has served 28 years of a life sentence for espionage. But Pollard is unlikely to be released, at least within the foreseeable future.

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