Visiting Israel, Juggling a Hundred Impossible Expectations

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

It’s near impossible to lower expectations of a visit by the President of the United States, especially to a region as consequential in U.S. policy, and controversial in U.S. politics, as the Middle East. Obama is learning this firsthand as he prepares to land in Israel for the first time in his presidency today.

The trip will include visits to the West Bank and Jordan, but it’s no secret that its primary function is to re-introduce the president to the Israeli people, and attempt to re-boot the relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose resistance to Obama’s peace efforts and differences over the immediacy of the threat posed by Iran led to a frosty relationship during the president’s first term.

I visited the country and the West Bank last week, and preparations on both sides were well under way to make sure that their messages were heard. In Ramallah, huge banners were hung, proclaiming “President Obama, don’t bring your smart phone to Ramallah; you won’t have mobile access to Internet; we nave no 3G in Palestine!” The fact that Israel denies Palestinian cell phone companies access to 3G and 4G frequencies might seem like an odd complaint compared to checkpoints, IDF incursions, and land confiscation by settlers, but it is symbolic of the way that the Israeli occupation continues to affect Palestinian economic and social life.

In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, signs along the highways called for the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. intelligence analyst given a life sentence in 1987 for passing secrets to Israel. The signs featured pictures of Pollard and Obama, on either side of the exhortation, “Yes You Can!” (Spoiler: No, he won’t.)

A number of Israelis I spoke to last week—officials, journalists, and a cab driver who I will not quote (he apologized that he’d already given his best material to Tom Friedman)—were unclear on what President Obama hoped to achieve with his visit. A few noted that everyone wanted to avoid a repeat of the 2010 Ramat Shlomo incident, in which 1,600 new settlement homes were announced during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, setting off a tense crisis between the two governments. On that score, the Daily Beast/Newsweek’s Eli Lake reported that the Israeli government will be on its best behavior when Obama comes, as “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office quietly asked the city government and the Interior Ministry earlier this month to hold off on any announcements regarding new construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods or settlement expansion in the West Bank before and during Obama’s visit.”

But while the effort by the president to re-introduce himself to the Israeli public is important—the trust and support of the Israeli public can function as an important point of leverage for U.S. presidents over recalcitrant Israeli prime ministers—it’s also important that President Obama avoid giving the impression to Israelis that the status quo with regard to the Palestinians can persist as it is without serious consequences for all involved.

And while it’s good to know that the Israeli Prime Minister can halt settlements when he really wants to, the make-up of the new Israeli government indicates that any settlement-halt probably won’t last long. One Israeli analyst to whom I spoke described the new coalition bluntly as a “a government of the settlers.” This is quite literally true in the case of new Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a former head of the Yesha Council, an umbrella group representing settlers and their interests. “Today there are 360,000 [settlers] and I want for there to be many, many more,” Ariel recently told the popular Israeli tabloid Yediot Ahronot. On the two-state solution, Ariel was unequivocal: “There can be only one state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea—Israel.”

In his dim view of peace with the Palestinians, Ariel will have company in another key cabinet post. In an interview with the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom newspaper, new Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon discussed his plans for the future. “Stop talking about a solution” with the Palestinians, Yaalon said. “Let’s instead talk about a path that we must follow, and that path is construction” of new settlements. Ya’alon then repeated, with no apparent irony, the familiar mantra that “there is no partner” for peace among the Palestinians.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank teeters on the brink of collapse, barely able to pay its salaries, embarrassed by its inability to deliver any significant easing of the occupation, and watching as its Hamas rivals in Gaza receive visits from the Turkish Foreign Minister and the Emir of Qatar.   

“I want the president to regenerate hope for the Palestinian people,” said Mohammad Shtayyeh, a close adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Responding to criticisms of Abbas’ continuing refusing to participate in direct talks with the Israelis, Shtayyeh said that, in the absence of a mutually accepted frame of reference, which President Obama himself attempted to establish with his May 2011 speech, such talks would not achieve much beyond providing cover for Netanyahu to continue to build settlements. “We are not avoiding negotiations, but we need a meaningful process,” Shtayyeh said. “We are the ones who will benefit the most from a peace agreement.”

Another Palestinian official was blunt in describing the current situation: “Take this message back: Things are not okay.”

But the thing is, for many Israelis, things seem okay. In 2010, a Time magazine article that questioned whether Israelis cared about peace with the Palestinians any more generated a sharp reaction. But it did get at an essential truth, which was that Israelis‑like most human beings‑would prefer not to dwell all the time on issues of security, war, and terrorism, and given the option will focus on other things. And, just as would any government, the Israeli government is working to make sure they have that option. While the nightmare of the Second Intifada, with its regular suicide attacks in Israel, is still very much in memory, life for most Israelis has basically returned to normal. As described by Ben Birnbaum in The New Republic, Israelis are generally supportive of ending the occupation, but many are still unsure about Palestinian intentions, and are cautious about taking any steps that could lessen their own security. And in the absence of any tangible costs for continuing the occupation, they don’t have much motivation to call for it to end.

No one likes being the bearer of bad tidings, certainly not a president coming to repair a relationship. But as he reintroduces himself to Israelis, President Obama has to be careful not help them maintain the illusion that the status quo can continue, that they can seal off the Palestinians behind walls and continue to build settlements on their land without an eventual crisis erupting. Good friends tell the truth. And the truth is that things are not okay.

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