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JERUSALEM, Mar 19 2013 (IPS) - U.S. President Barack Obama arrives in Israel on Wednesday, his first destination abroad of his second term, to pay a visit to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whose own second consecutive term will have started only 48 hours beforehand. No wonder that the true purpose of the U.S. President’s visit is defined as reaching out to the Israeli people.
“White smoke in Jerusalem,” announced political pundits. There’s finally a government in Israel. One day prior to the deadline allocated to him by law to form a coalition, Netanyahu informed President Shimon Peres on Saturday evening that he has a government.
“We face a decisive year in the fields of security and economy, and efforts to promote peace,” he told Peres.
But before facing a decisive year, Netanyahu must face a decisive week – the Obama week.
Netanyahu’s majority coalition of 68 legislators in the 120-member Knesset parliament depends largely on the two rising stars of Israeli politics – Yair Lapid and his centrist party There’s a Future (19 seats) that appealed to the middle class with its “equal sharing of the social burden”; and Naftali Bennett and the Jewish Home party (12 seats) linked to the settlers’ lobby.
Netanyahu’s confidantes, former defence minister Ehud Barak, and traditional Likud party buddies were ousted from politics; his ultra-orthodox allies, from the coalition.
“Netanyahu is in a weak position vis-à-vis Obama not just because he’s increasingly alone at the helm, but he’s yet to forge a new policy. Obama knows that. So he’ll hear what the President has to say, but won’t have much to say himself,” says Channel 10 correspondent Yonatan Regev.
“We’ve got a clear policy – on Iran, the Arab world, the Palestinian issue,” retorts Yossi Kuperwasser, director-general at the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Regev suggests that “Obama and Netanyahu aren’t the best of friends after all.” Precisely because they’re not ‘best friends’, Obama sent out some ‘feel good’ messages in an exclusive interview to Israel’s Channel 2 last week.
He went out of his way to refer to Netanyahu by his nickname (“Bibi”) at least ten times, declaring, “We’ve got a terrific businesslike relationship. He’s very blunt with me about his views on issues; I’m very blunt with him about my views on issues.”
“We may differ here and there about what exactly constitutes the right move that would promote our joint interest towards peace,” cautions Kuperwasser. “Matters are discussed, but we’re very close. That’s the atmosphere that’ll characterise the visit.”
On Obama’s agenda is the spring-to-summer red line on Iran obtaining capability to develop nuclear weapons drawn by his host, which if crossed would trigger an Israeli strike on its nuclear sites. And, spring’s in the offing.
Meanwhile, Tehran is reportedly diverting some enriched uranium for research, thus slowing down its march towards an atomic bomb, so that no one knows for sure when Netanyahu’s red line will be drawn.
His opposition to a unilateral attack on Iran notwithstanding, Obama has sought to assuage Israeli misgivings. “Iran possessing a nuclear weapon is a red line,” he said on Channel 2, adopting the Netanyahu language. ”When I say all options are on the table, all options are on the table.”
“It’s not, ‘All options are on the table’,” says Kuperwasser. “There’s need for a credible military option to convince the Iranians to stop their programme.”
Also on the agenda is renewal of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas, who Obama will meet on Thursday.
“Israelis are concerned with socio-economic issues – the price of apartments; the draft of ultra-Orthodox students who’re exempted from military service; the budget,” says Regev.
Immersed in domestic politics for the past three months and in the foreseeable future, Netanyahu has had no time to devote to policy-making. So it’s hard to believe he’ll be hard-pressed by Obama to move forward on the only foreign policy issue on which he can call the shots – peace-making with the Palestinians.
Abbas’s successful bid for UN recognition of ‘Palestine’ as a non-member observer state in November has sparked Palestinian protests against the Israeli occupation.
“Obama’s visit to Abbas is a sideshow to contain the Palestinian problem and give life support to the PA so that it doesn’t collapse but carry on its mission in this transitional phase until the Israelis wake up to realise that they must work for a two-state solution before it’s too late,” says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, founder of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA).
In September 2010, Netanyahu refused Obama’s request to extend a ten-month moratorium on settlement construction; as a result, Abbas refused to have peace talks extended.
Kuperwasser dismisses a renewed settlement freeze: “We’ve been there already. The fact is the Palestinians prefer to opt for a unilateral policy and receive UN declarations with no meaning on the ground instead of negotiating with us without pre-condition possibilities to change the situation in both our favour.”
In a sign that a resumption of peace talks isn’t expected during the presidential visit, U.S. officials have said that Obama will resort to listening to his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors, and reach out to the Israeli people directly.
Hence, the preview of the President’s trip recently posted on YouTube by the White House highlights a speech on Thursday in front of Israeli students.
“This really is the true purpose of the visit – the ability for the President to speak directly to the Israeli people about the future that we want to build together,” says U.S. Deputy National Advisor Ben Rhodes in the video clip.
During his first trip abroad of his first term, Obama addressed the Muslim world from Cairo University, unaware he had become a source of inspiration for the Arab awakening.
Yet if Obama hopes that he’ll touch Israelis the way he touched the Arab world; that Israelis will emulate the motto ‘Yes We Can’ and reach out to the Palestinians, may be in for a big disappointment.
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