Obama went to Israel to try to rescue the state from deepening isolation

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Obama and Netanyahu
President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during Obama’s visit to Israel (Photo: Associated Press/Carolyn Kaster)

The Obama administration’s creation of extremely low expectations prior to the president’s first trip to Israel and Palestine in office was a strategic gambit meant to make his trip look all the more good when he made some progress, albeit incremental, on a number of fronts. All of the admittedly meager deliverables Obama obtained and pushed for had one thing in mind: helping to break Israel out of its increasing political isolation in the Middle East, and the world more broadly. Whether this will actually work remains to be seen, but by most indications, Israel’s actions and political system will continue to isolate the country. 

You can see the examples of political isolation in many places. Whether it’s the California divestment movement or the United Nations Human Rights Council approving a harsh report against illegal settlements, Israel’s loneliness continues—save for the United States always having its back.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may recognize Israel’s political isolation is not beneficial, the continued strength of the Israeli economy and the discovery of natural gas off its shores will leave most of the Israeli political class comfortable no matter what the world thinks of them.

President Obama’s worldview—evidently a liberal Zionist one—leaves him uncomfortable with this state of affairs. But Obama’s personal worldview only has a small effect on what actions he takes; the institution of the presidency is much more important than his personal inclinations. And the U.S. elite he represents has a reason to be worried about Israeli isolation. This isolation deepens because of continued illegal and provocative actions. Those actions may lead to increased pressure on Israel from Palestinian protests and regional governments that are more susceptible to popular opinion than they were before the Arab Spring (though there is no Palestinian uprising coming in the near future for a variety of reasons). And those provocations in the region could make it difficult for a “stable” Middle East–friendly to American elite interests–to continue existing to the extent it does now. For all these reasons, Obama’s speech in Jerusalem was meant to sound the alarm about Israel’s regional isolation.

“Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war,” Obama told the crowd of Israeli youth. “This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. I recognize that with the uncertainty in the region – people in the streets, changes in leadership, the rise of non-secular parties in politics –it is tempting to turn inward. But this is precisely the time to respond to the wave of revolution with a resolve for peace.”

These words came in a speech that promised unconditional American support, which helps boost the profits of weapons companies and is the easy political thing to do. But unconditional American support only means so much if the rest of the world continues to turn against you.

The biggest get on the anti-isolation front was the much-heralded Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. Obama also tried to make progress on the “peace process.” While it remains unlikely that a genuine “peace process” will emerge from Obama’s efforts, the semblance of movement towards one could help Israel out with its diplomatic relations with Europe and other countries in the Middle East.

Right before President Obama left Israel, a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the call concluded, Netanyahu’s office announced that he told Erdogan that Israel “regretted” the incidents on board the Mavi Marmara, the flotilla ship where Israel killed 9 people trying to get to Gaza, and that Turkey had accepted Netanyahu’s apology. Headlines beamed the news of Israeli-Turkish reconciliation around the world, and predictions of increasing Israeli ties to Turkey were made. But the devil remains in the details.

Erdogan has now said that the normalization of ties with Israel is predicated on the lifting of the Gaza blockade and the payment of compensation to the families of those killed by the Israeli Navy on the Mavi Marmara. Still, whether full normalization goes through between the two states, it is significant that Obama seemed to encourage Netanyahu into making the apology as the way for Israel to restore ties to Turkey.

These ties are important because, on a number of political issues, Israel needs Turkey as an ally in a region where it has none. Israel needs Turkey to help deal with the chaos in Syria, and closer Israeli cooperation with NATO, which Turkey has sought to block, is another prize that could come from Israeli-Turkish rapprochement.

So the Israeli-Turkish dance remains complicated. And getting the “peace process” back on track could be even more complicated.

Time and time again during the president’s trip, both Obama and Netanyahu emphasized the need to return to negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The negotiations, in Obama’s worldview, will also help Israel break out of growing isolation, even if they won’t lead to a real agreement. Netanyahu knows this, and it’s why he agreed on the need for peace talks despite a right-wing coalition filled with settlers and their supporters.

The need for Netanyahu’s government to put on a nice face was driven home to me when I encountered Michael Oren, the American-born Israeli ambassador to the U.S., in the press room at the residence of Netanyahu in an upscale neighborhood in Jerusalem. After he was done giving an interview in Hebrew, I approached him and asked to speak with Oren. He was hesitant—Mondoweiss is “not exactly friendly” to Israel, he told me, and he was worried how I would spin it—but he did briefly talk with me.

Asked about whether Israel’s right-wing pro-settler government would cause tensions with the U.S., he replied:

“The government’s committed to the peace process. There may be different ideas about how to proceed, but the government, the Israeli government, the way our democracy works, it’s a consensual form of government, there’s one government position…And the government is committed to finding a solution.”

The nod to the “peace process” and a “solution” is Oren’s attempt to tell the world that Israel wants peace, despite the fact that its actions say otherwise.

And the Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, desperately wants to return to negotiations. Peace talks are all they have, as their economy remains in shambles and sentiment in the West Bank continues to turn away from Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. But the PA is caught between their wish to please their international benefactors and their people, who want no part of pointless negotiations.

So Obama came here to help jumpstart negotiations, and the U.S., led by Secretary of State John Kerry, is trying to coax the PA into talks. The unlocking of $500 million in aid to the West Bank government could be one way to do that. The Israeli government made a similar move yesterday when it resumed the regular transfer of tax revenues they collect on the PA’s behalf to Abbas’ government.

The peace talks, if they ever happen, will not go anywhere substantive. We can say that given their miserable history. But Obama sees them as important to breaking Israel out of its deepening political isolation.

And this was one reason why Obama came to Israel: to warn them that despite unconditional U.S. support, you have to make some moves that brighten up your image.

The Israeli settlers don’t care about this image. But Obama knows that if Israel is to weather the storm of revolution and a changing Europe that is now talking about sanctions (though for now, it is only talk), the facade of peace talks are important. A belligerent right-wing government in Israel will continue to do harm to the state’s political situation. But Obama came to help rescue the state from itself. The big problem for the Obama administration, though, is that the dominant political forces in Israel continue to dive deeper into the abyss of apartheid, and by consequence, isolation.

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