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Obama’s trip to Israel: Just showing up isn't enough

The U.S. president’s decision to visit Israel and the Palestinian territories in the spring is an unexpected political gift to the Israeli prime minister. Yet without confronting Netanyahu on the issues of the settlements and the ’67 borders, we could end up with another diplomatic failure and even a renewal of violence in the region.

President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu in the White House (photo: Pete Souza / White House)

The White House’s confirmation regarding the planned visit by President Barack Obama to Israel and the Palestinian Authority came just at the right time for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been facing some difficulties in putting together his next coalition. As was the case four years ago, Netanyahu wants the widest possible government, but the centrist parties are demanding a renewal of “meaningful negotiations” with the PA and military draft reform. Things will be made considerably easier now, as Obama’s visit alone will generate the feeling that peace talks are indeed on their way, thus making Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid’s entry into the coalition much easier.

Naturally, the mere presence of Lapid and/or Livni in the government doesn’t guarantee anything regarding the diplomatic process itself, and I still think that even if there was a real desire to end the occupation on the Israeli side, the current Knesset doesn’t present a workable political base for it, especially due to the changes within Netanyahu’s Likud party. It is worth noting that Naftali Bennett and the settlers don’t have any problem joining a government that would renew negotiations with the Palestinians. They believe that nothing will come out of the talks, certainly not evacuation of settlements, under the present political circumstances. As I have written in the past, the political behavior of the settlers is a good litmus test for the level of seriousness on the Israeli side.

The planned visit also confirms, at least in the Israeli public’s image, the Right’s claim that Netanyahu’s confrontational approach didn’t hurt Israeli interests, and perhaps even aided them. On the other hand, it’s clear that the president waited for the right moment – when he is strong and Netanyahu is weak(er) before making a visit. The Israeli media estimated yesterday that aside from the desire to safeguard American interests in the region and to renew the peace process, the visit also has to do with a political debt to members of the Jewish elite that supported the president in the last elections.

Netanyahu and the diplomatic process

Still, the political circumstances in Israel are less important than the goals of the visit regarding the Palestinian issue – assuming that there are such goals, and that the purpose of the visit is not solely coordinating positions on Syria and Iran.

Making the Palestinians and the Israelis to talk to each other is the easiest part – Obama had Netanyahu and President Abbas meet once – but the real question has to do with the nature of the process. Negotiations could be meaningful if they are prepared correctly. Simply forcing the two parties to meet could end up producing nothing (as was the case three years ago) or worse, in a rapid collapse on the ground like the one that followed the failed Camp David summit in 2000.

Here are some of the most important issues to consider:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu has moved away from positions taken by Israeli negotiators since the beginning of the last decade. He (a) refuses to see ’67 borders as the goal of the process, with agreed upon land swaps and slight border modifications; and (b) he refuses a compromise on Jerusalem. This is a major issue that didn’t receive enough attention in the public debate.

2. The Israeli government continues to build settlements in the West Bank in a way that creates enormous frustration and bitterness among the Palestinian population; it takes away land resources required for any future Palestinian state and contributes to the problem the same government would face if it were ever willing to sign a deal. It is important to note the contradicting positions the Israeli government is holding on this issue – insisting that the settlements are “not a problem” and could be evacuated within a final agreement, and at the same time demanding that any such agreement will reflect a recognition of “changes on the ground” since 1967 – meaning the settlements.

3. Prime Minister Netanyahu has introduced new demands which were never brought up by Israeli negotiators in the past – like a Palestinian recognition of internal issues regarding the culture and the regime of the State of Israel. The Palestinian leadership is required not just to recognize Israel – something it has done in the past – but to recognize it as a Jewish state. This is perhaps the most cynical of Netanyahu’s actions, because it is also serves an internal purpose – to delegitimize and isolate the Israelis, Jews and Arabs who believe in a democratic “state of all its citizens” model.

4. Finally, in both his previous terms, Netanyahu refused to prepare the Israeli public for concessions and instead had it anticipate an inevitable failure. One can never underestimate the power of a leader in shaping the cultural and political landscape, and unlike Rabin, and to a lesser degree Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t convey any urgency to end the occupation; instead he demonizes the Palestinians and throws into the public debate more and more terms and issues where Israel must not compromise. In other words, Netanyahu is undermining the whole notion of an agreement by constantly raising its cost on the Israeli side. The result is a growing disbelief among the Israeli public regarding the ability to end the occupation, which is reflected across the entire political system. Unlike the previous points, this is not an issue that the administration can directly influence, but rather something to watch as the diplomatic effort is renewed.

Unless those issues, and especially the first two points, are addressed, I think it will be impossible to reach any sort of meaningful breakthrough. This will require investing a lot of political capital on the American side, something the White House has been reluctant to do in the past.

There are also problems regarding the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, but I believe that the Palestinian desire to end the occupation is so large that if there was indeed an Israeli partner who would evacuate settlements and move the army out of the West Bank, any Palestinian leadership that would deal with him could win back the support of the street, even today.

Yet this also should be said: The United States and Israel can force any given Palestinian leadership into talks, and maybe even into signing an agreement that does nothing but slightly modify the status quo and present it as “peace.” Still, without addressing the real needs and rights of the Palestinian people, such an achievement – more than anything that happens right now in the absence of a real diplomatic process – would be the best way to ensure further bloodshed and suffering on both sides.

Related:
What will the third Netanyahu government look like, and how will it deal with the Palestinian issue?
Lapid’s platform: No compromise over Jerusalem, no settlement freeze
UN Human Rights Council: Settlement issue could end up in the International Criminal Court
One or two states? The status quo is Israel’s rational choice

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Kolumn9

      Settlements are not a problem if the 1967 lines are not the goal as future borders. There is no contradiction here whatsoever. If anything, the construction of settlements, demands for future borders reflecting reality on the ground and a refusal to accept the 1967 lines as a basis for negotiations are entirely self-reinforcing and consistent positions.

      The Olmert government in principle accepted the idea of the 67 lines as a goal within the context of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed negotiations’ and in relation to Palestinian concessions elsewhere. This was also done within the context of the Americans being in Iraq and ensuring that there is no threat from the east. This situation no longer exists and moreover the Palestinians wish to now make this a precondition which is a massive escalation in terms of starting positions for negotiations. No Israeli government has ever entered negotitions on this basis.

      Obama’s visit should be read as placing pressure on the Palestinians to drop their preconditions and restart negotiations on the same basis as they started negotiations in the past with Barak and Olmert.

      I would also like to point out that Bibi doesn’t need to do very much work to prepare Israelis for the expectation that negotiations will fail. This derives naturally from previous failures by significantly more flexible governments. More importantly the association exists in the Israeli public between the failure of negotiations and a campaign of terrorism against Israeli civilians. It isn’t just that Israelis are unwilling to make the concessions you think they have to but they are afraid of negotiations in themselves.

      Reply to Comment
      • Giora Me'ir

        Netanyahu can’t even agree to freeze settlement construction while talks are on going. Why not? Because he has no intention on agreeing to a viable Palestinian state, and is just delaying as long as possible until he can establish “facts on the ground” that make that totally impossible. Impossible since he said during the campaign that he won’t evacuate any settlements.

        Thus, without at least a settlement freeze, there’s nothing to negotiate. Palestinians are better off relying on international pressure and, ultimately, sanctions to change Israel behavior. Of course, Israeli behavior would change overnight if we had a U.S. president willing to threaten them with loss of aid and other benefits if they don’t end the west bank colonization and ethnic cleansing. But we know that won’t happen.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          If you recall, Netanyahu DID agree to a settlement freeze, which antagonized a lot of his supporters. Abbas refused to negotiate, in spite of Obama’s entrieties. The demand for a settlement freeze, which was never demanded from Olmert, is only an excuse by the Palestinians to avoid making the concessions necessary in order to reach an agreement with Israel, which Abbas and the Palestinian leadership realize would be suicidah for them.
          They had the chance to reach agreements with Peres, Barak and Olmert and refused every time.

          Reply to Comment
          • Giora Me'ir

            The freeze was temporary, didn’t apply to projects already underway and didn’t include East Jerusalem. Had more holes than a slice of swiss cheese.

            That agreements were not reached is not justification for continuing Israeli colonization. And the parties were close at Taba but ran out of time.

            Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          1) Netanyahu himself agreed to a settlement freeze while the Palestinians refused to show up to negotiate. A viable Palestinian state can arise in 40% of the West Bank so there is no real issue there. The Palestinians demand more but those demands have nothing to do with viability.

          2) Settlements have been removed in the past, including in the West Bank. So, the argument that they can’t be in the future is empty.

          3) The Palestinians can rely on whatever they want if they wish the current situation to continue, but that just demonstrates that they care more about hurting Israel than creating their own state.

          4) Israeli behavior is likely to become even more aggressive if the US were to become hostile. If a sacrifice for peace might have been a reasonable risk with US support, without it that same risk is inconceivable.

          Reply to Comment
          • Giora Me'ir

            40% of the West Bank? You’re barely leaving them with 10% of the original Palestine. I guess you want to turn the west bank into Gaza.

            What settlements were removed? I’m not talking about “outposts.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Ah, and there you go, we are not talking about viability are we?

            Reply to Comment
          • Giora Me'ir

            No, we’re talking about a large ghetto.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Some people say that about Israel as well.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            And for the record, the settlements that were evacuated from the West Bank in 2005 were Homesh, Sa-Nur, Kadim and Gadim. You did know about this, right?

            Reply to Comment
          • Giora Me'ir

            Yeah, okay, if you want to consider 70 family outposts settlements like Ariel, fine.

            Reply to Comment
          • The Trespasser

            Ariel is as much of a settlement as Ramallah.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            You didn’t know, did you?

            These were not outposts. They were settlements in every way. They were created as part of official Israeli policy in the 1980s. They were evacuated by an Israeli government. So, can an Israeli government evacuate settlements from the West Bank? History proves yes. All this talk about settlements being the main obstacle to peace because an Israeli government can not evacuate settlements from the West Bank is based on ignorance and lies. Now you can’t claim ignorance, but lies are certainly still open to you as an option.

            Reply to Comment
          • sh

            A couple of the settlements you mentioned had already evacuated themselves long before Sharon did it officially, another had decided to establish a yeshiva in a mosque, the other schlepped things out until 2007? In short those evictions were no great concession and don’t compare at all with returning anything serious like Tapuah or Kedumim or Eilon Moreh to their rightful owners.

            The way you say it, the difference between a negotiating point and a precondition is semantics.

            Reply to Comment
      • Richard Lightbown

        Except that it is not only the Palestinians that are making preconditions. The biggest precondition (conveniently forgotten in your post) is that the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state. Only a total quisling could agree to such a demand. I suspect, though I could be wrong, that even Abbas is never going to sell his people out to that extent, no matter how much money is put into his bank account.

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          I dare you to find me any current official Israeli statement conditioning the resumption of negotiations on the recognition by Abbas of Israel as a Jewish State. You are not going to find one.

          Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            30 seconds Google search and I find this
            Netanyahu in Amsterdam synagogue: ‘Palestinians must recognize Israel as a Jewish state’
            http://www.eurojewcong.org/improving-eu-israel-relations/7348-netanyahu-in-amsterdam-synagogue:-%E2%80%98palestinians-must-recognize-israel-as-a-jewish-state%E2%80%99.html

            Then this:
            Netanyahu said during a visit to the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. “The Palestinians must recognize the Jewish state and they must be prepared to end the conflict with Israel once and for all.”

            http://www.jta.org/news/article/2012/11/29/3113116/netanyahu-no-palestinian-state-until-negotiations-despite-un-vote

            How exact do you want the wording? How many seconds ago is current? The fact remains that Palestinians did not enter into negotiations during the”freeze” on settlements because Netanyahu insisted they recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That precondition has never been taken off the table and in consequence negotiations have never got underway.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            The exact or inexact wording I want is: “We will not negotiate with the Palestinians until Abbas recognizes Israel as a Jewish state”. Did you find this for me? No. Because it is not a precondition.

            All you have provided so far is Israeli negotiating positions. The difference between this and a preconditions could best be explained to you by demonstrating the difference on the Palestinian side. The Palestinians demand that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the borders before sitting down to talk. The Palestinians insist they have a right to return but do not insist that Bibi accepts this before sitting down to negotiate.

            Is the difference clear or would you like to muddy the waters some more?

            The Palestinians did enter negotiations at the last minute of the freeze and the issue of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state didn’t get in the way of Israelis sitting to negotiate. So even there your argument is empty.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            “The Palestinians demand that Israel accept the 1967 lines as the borders before sitting down to talk.”
            Reference please.

            K9: “The fact remains that Palestinians did not enter into negotiations during the”freeze” on settlements because Netanyahu insisted they recognize Israel as a Jewish state.”
            Wikipedia: “Netanyahu refused to extend the freeze unless the Palestinian Authority recognized Israel as a Jewish State while the Palestinian leadership refused to continue negotiating unless Israel extended the moratorium.”
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_negotiations_between_Israel_and_the_Palestinians_(2010-2011)
            OK that was two and a half years ago, but I don’t think the snake has changed his spots somehow.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4188697,00.html

            “Abbas will agree to negotiate with Israel only if Netanyahu is willing to embark on talks on the basis of the 1967 border, and declares it publicly, and in addition to agreeing to freeze construction in the settlements”

            Again you are trying to muddy the waters. Bibi refused to extend the settlement freeze (an Israeli gesture of good will) without some sort of corresponding gesture on the part of the Palestinians. He set no preconditions on negotiations. He doesn’t right now and he never has. You have been unable to provide any evidence to the contrary.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            The ynet report is not clear and I think you are reading something into it that is incorrect. It does not specifically say that 67 border is a precondition. The headline would probably have mentioned it if that is what they meant. I think you need to back that one up with a clearer reference.

            I question whether it was a gesture of good will when there had never been a freeze in the first place. It was a good pretext to get a demand for a Jewish state in though. And that definitely WAS a precondition in late 2010.

            Gabriela Shalev at least agrees with my interpretation
            http://thinkprogress.org/security/2011/08/08/290126/shalev-jewish-state-superfluous/?mobile=nc
            Shalev, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, offered harsh advice to Netanyahu, challenging his claims that he has no “preconditions” for talks with the Palestinians, saying:
            Israel could show by gestures that when Netanyahu talks about negotiations without preconditions, there really are no preconditions; that we are not only willing to speak about painful concessions, but show that we are willing to do it by not going on with building settlements; and by not putting new things on the table, like the requirement that Palestinians recognize Israel as the homeland of Jewish people, which to my mind is superfluous. Brazil didn’t recognize us as that. Egypt didn’t.

            Shimon Peres seemed to think so too, but I can’t nail that one down. But Netanyahu has been saying it consistently since 2010 that Palestinians must agree to it for a peace agreement.

            Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            Richard, the Palestinian preconditions of using the 67 lines as a basis for negotiations and a total freeze to settlement construction including Jerusalem are well-known. Abbas and the PA point them out at every opportunity. I provided you with a link but you can do your own research into the matter. Search google for Abbas and preconditions.

            As you yourself point out at the end of your post Netanyahu most certainly has a large number of positions that he expects to achieve in peace negotiations including the recognition of Israel is a Jewish state. As I pointed out the Palestinians have their own negotiating positions that they pronounce quiet clearly that are unlikely to ever be realized – the right of return for example. That is different from the Palestinian position whereby they refuse to even sit down to negotiate in the first place unless Israel does A, B, and C. These are called preconditions in that they are conditions that the Palestinians demand to be met before they are willing to negotiate. The Palestinians have them. Israel doesn’t.

            This conversation is over.

            Reply to Comment
          • Richard Lightbown

            K9: “This conversation is over.”
            That’s about the only acknowledgement I am likely to get from you that Netanyahu has set a precondition, unacceptable to the Palestinians, as unambiguously acknowledged by the former Israeli Ambassador to the UN. A precondition he sprung, as you know, in late 2010, to bust the direct negotiations. A condition for peace that he has consistently repeated not only in Israel, but in Europe and the US.

            The reference you gave me does not specifically say the Palestinians set the 67 borders as a precondition, and the headline merely states “Abbas: No Israel talks without settlement freeze”. It’s not my place to do your research for you: I’m calling your statement as unproven. It’s up to you to back it up with a legitimate reference – if you can.

            You’ve ducked and dived on this one but your claims that the Palestinians are entirely at fault for the failure of direct negotiations to start is fraudulent. And now you slink off from the debate because you know you cannot back it up and you do not have the integrity to acknowledge your position is wrong.

            Reply to Comment
        • Leen

          Even Israel has a hard time defining what IS a ‘Jewish’ state? Is it a State based on Jewish laws? Is it a state only for Jewish people but secular? Is it a status quo of we’re secular but not really since we fine people on Shabbat if they are open?’ Is it a Jewish state where having one Jewish grandparent is enough to make you Jewish? Or does that have to be a maternal or you must convert? Does that mean that every action that Israel chooses to take is a representative of all the Jews in the world?

          How the hell does Bibi expect people to recognize them as a Jewish state when they don’t even know what the hell is a ‘Jewish’ state?

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            You are changing the topic. The point is that Richard is wrong and there are no preconditions to negotiations on the part of Israel.

            Reply to Comment
      • barney rubble

        ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed negotiations’

        you mean the creation of a Jewish state can’t be agreed unless its simultaneous with the creation of a Palestinian state

        Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Presidents, in their second term, see their power dwindle away as lame ducks, particularly if they don’t control both houses of Congress, which is the case with Obama. Thus, foreign trips allow them to get away from the worries at home (for a while) and bask in international attention and enjoy the spotlight. I would look at Obama’s trip in that light. He has very little leverage he can operate on either side.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Giora Me'ir

      It’s not the Palestinians and Israelis who need to talk, it’s the Americans and the Israelis. There will be no progress on the Palestinian front until the Israelis understand that the Amercians will no longer tolerate Israel’s bad faith and illegality in the west bank.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Danny

      On the contrary – the planned early visits of both Kerry followed by Obama might bode very ill for Bibi and his settler base. It might possibly mean that the U.S. is finally getting serious about restarting negotiations, with all that these talks will entails (i.e. settlement construction freeze, etc). It might mean that Obama has finally decided to get tough with Bibi.
      .
      How will Bibi juggle Bennet and Feiglin on the one hand, and Obama’s demands for concessions on the other will be interesting.

      Reply to Comment
      • Danny

        Seems like I spoke way too soon. I guess Obama is getting to be pretty predictable these days because his office just said he does NOT intend to kick start negotiations while he’s in the Middle East.
        .
        The question then arises: What the hell’s he going there for??? Maybe he’s looking for some pointers on targeted killings? (that seems to be his favorite pastime of late).

        Reply to Comment
        • Eliza

          I don’t necessarily hold out much hope that the Obama administration will tackle the I/P conflict in any serious way. However, if Obama is, in fact, going to enter the fray again, the last thing that he would do is openly acknowledge that his visit is intended to restart ‘peace’ talks. To do so would pretty much to ensure that the visit is automatically viewed as a diplomatic failure. We all speculate about politican’s motivations and strategies – my take is that if Obama is going to try and bring about resolution of I/P conflict, he is too smart and determined to simply go back to the old tired and failed formula of ‘peace fakery talks’. I think, hope, that he will first try and prepare the ground by facilitating a substantive change in American and Israeli public opinion. I’m sure that the slow change in American public opinion re Israel (including the pushback on Hagel confirmation hearings) has not gone unnoticed. As for Israel – I think he will give Israel just a little more rope to hang itself. And Israel will undoubtedly oblige.

          Reply to Comment
    5. Recall the last Gaza bombings and whatever American promises were made to get Bibi et al to forego ground invasion. With Syria, Iran and Gaza I can see the Administration agreeing to visit. There is also fear derived from Lybia and Mali of growing terror networks, so the US will want to try and edge the Palestinian issue in some direction.

      My impression of Obama, post re-election, is that he doesn’t fool around. He wants something. XYZ, above, is wrong in his surmise that the trip is a deversion from internal problems. I think it significant that he is going to the Bank; a Republican would not do this. This in itself is a distancing from Bibi. We like to place our hopes in people of power, but Obama has employed MLK on more than one occasion as an icon (he used MLK’s travel Bible for the second swearing in). Perhaps delusional, I think nonviolent protest has meaning for him. I see no pending Imperial Decree, but instead a growing willingness to signal past Israeli policy, Gaza and Bank, is increasingly and publically suspect. And I think the settlers will get no respect at all from him.

      Reply to Comment
      • Haifawi

        Dubya visited the West Bank and even made statements that showed his understanding of the dual narrative. Words are just that.

        As far as Ariel being as much as a settlement as Ramallah, Ramallah wasn’t centrally planned to occupy as much territory along the latitudinal axis such as to sever connections between the North and the South. (seriously, 5km long and 700 meters wide! who builds like this???)

        Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Coming to Israel and meeting Bibi is ‘distancing’? By what warped definition of the word is this even remotely logical?

        As Haifawi points out the Israel/PA/Jordan trip is pretty standard fare for presidents, including Republican one. Again you place significance in things that are simply not true.

        Reply to Comment
        • I actually didn’t remember Bush’s visit; there came a point where I gave up on news regarding Bush. So I was wrong.

          If you want to see a love fest between the two, go ahead. I think you will find the Administration’s distaste for the vanguard settlers unchanged.

          Reply to Comment
    6. Chepsky

      When these Settlers take their fascist ideas of worshipping “Israel” and go back to New York or Golders Green, London, then there might be some chance for peace.

      What has the humanist principles of Judaism got to do with the Zionist Israel?
      NOTHING.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        Yep, everyone loves those humanist Jews who wish to stop being Jews.

        Reply to Comment
        • Wonderful race policing K9. It must have been very hard in the Soviet.

          Reply to Comment
          • Shmuel

            -
            “Wonderful race policing K9. It must have been very hard in the Soviet.”

            I wish I would understand what these two sentences mean. Ihaven’t the foggiest what you are trying to say, Greg.

            Reply to Comment
    7. Masoud Jazayeri

      The commenter using the name of a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard is banned from commenting on this site. S/he is also banned when using any other of his/her pseudonyms.

      Reply to Comment
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