President Obama’s visit to Israel – continuity or change?

“Israel Hayom”, http://bit.ly/VL1zTm, February 08, 2013

President Obama’s March 2013 visit to the Middle East, including Israel, could signal a significant policy-change from his June 2009 visit, which excluded Israel.  On the other hand, the introduction of the John Kerry (State Department) – Chuck Hagel (Pentagon) – John Brennan (CIA) team of “Palestine Firsters” may suggest that the March visit could merely be a tactical-change in pursuit of the same policy.

The 2009 visit was driven by an assumption that a newly-elected charismatic US President could turnaround the US economy and reform US healthcare, while simultaneously implementing UN-like multilateralism, lowering the US unilateral profile, transforming the world from confrontation to engagement, mollifying the Muslim World, coax Iran into abandoning its megalomaniac aspirations and resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The 2009 visit reflected a worldview focusing on the Palestinian issue as the, supposed, core cause of Middle East turbulence, the crown jewel of Islamic policy-making, an essential link in forging an anti-Iran Arab coalition and the crux of the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Israel was perceived as a secondary ally, at best, and a burden, at worst.

However, the Middle East has defied Obama’s assumptions and world view.  None of Obama’s Middle East goals were achieved, highlighting the increasingly violent and unpredictable anti-US Islamic Street, totally independent of the Palestinian issue. The tumultuous Islamic Winter – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf – has further accentuated Israel as the only stable, predictable, commercially and militarily capable, innovative, democratic and unconditional ally of the US. 

The March, 2013 visit to Israel will take place as the threats to critical US interests – which are endangering the entire Free World - are intensifying daily.  The Iranian nuclear sand clock is running out, causing panic among US Arab allies, exposing the futility of diplomacy and sanctions. The lava on the Islamic Street threatens to sweep Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and additional members of the dwindling club of pro-US Arab regimes, ridiculing the “Arab Springers.”  Iraq is disintegrating, becoming an Iranian subsidiary and an arena for global terrorism, rather than an island of free election, mocking the delusion of Arab democracy.  Egypt has been transformed from a pro-US outpost into a chief catalyst of the anti-Western trans-national Muslim Brotherhood revolution. In contrast with the “Palestine Firsters,” Arab leaders are pre-occupied with their tectonic home-front and the lethal Iranian threat, not with the Palestinian issue, which has never been their top concern, irrespective of their rhetoric. 

The March, 2013 visit to Israel will take place at a time when the stormy Arab Winter clarifies that the win-win US-Israel strategic cooperation does not evolve around the Palestinian issue, but around mutual regional and global threats. Thus, while the threats to US targets on the mainland and abroad are mounting and US power-projection is declining, Israel emerges as the only effective battle-tested ally which can pull the hottest chestnuts out of the fire, for the US, without American boots on the ground. 

In the face of dramatic threats in 2013, President Obama could facilitate a dramatic enhancement of the mutually-beneficial bilateral strategic cooperation.  For example, the upgrading of Israel’s port of Ashdod into a home port for the Sixth Fleet; the relocation of advance aircraft, missiles, tanks and counter-terrorism systems, from Europe to Israel, for US use in case of emergencies in Jordan and the Gulf area.   US focus on mutual threats, rather than on the Palestinian issue, would reassure Riyadh and deter Teheran.

The March, 2013 visit follows the January 22, 2013 Israeli election, which was dominated by “It’s the economy, stupid!”   The Israeli constituent is skeptical about the “peace process” and the land-for-peace formula, does not trust Mahmoud Abbas and is weary of further “painful concessions.”  The only national security challenge which concerns most Israelis is the Iranian nuclear threat.  

In 1981, President Reagan pressured Prime Minister Begin brutally against bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor, lest it trigger a regional war.  Israel defied the US, which thanked Israel following the 1991Gulf War “for sparing the US a nuclear confrontation.”  Will President Obama attempt to handcuff Israel, or will he leverage Israel’s experienced hands to spare the US and the Free World devastating consequences?!

President Obama may decide to ignore Middle East reality, subordinate US-Israel relations to the Palestinian issue, and pressure/entice Israel into further concessions. He should note the negative results of US pressure on Israel.  For example, Israel’s unprecedented November, 2009 ten-month construction freeze in eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria radicalized Mahmoud Abbas’ position. Israel’s unprecedented concessions at Camp David, in July, 2000, triggered the Second Intifada’s unprecedented wave of terrorism. The US pressure to allow Hamas’ participation in the January, 2006 election resulted in two wars in Gaza.  According to Max Fisher’s 1992 biography, Quiet Diplomat, President Eisenhower admitted that “I should have never pressured Israel to evacuate the Sinai,” which fueled President Nasser’s anti-American radicalism.

The March, 2013 visit to Israel will indicate whether President Obama is determined to learn from history by avoiding, or by repeating, critical errors.