No peace plan and lots of photo-ops: White House sets low expectations for Obama visit to Middle East

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Obama and Netanyahu
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu at a May 2011 meeting.
(JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The White House is setting low expectations for President Barack Obama’s visit to the Middle East next week, with no new peace initiative planned for when he touches down in the region. Instead, the visit will focus on symbolic events and diplomatic meetings with the leaders of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority (PA) that touch on a wide range of issues. The emphasis of Obama’s trip will also be on speaking directly to Israelis, particularly Israeli youth.

“We’ve been very clear that this visit is not about trying to lay down a new initiative,” said Ben Rhodes, the top Obama communications aide on national security, in a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon. “There’s value in traveling precisely at a time when there is a new government in Israel and a new government in the United States and just having a broad strategic conversation.” Rhodes did say that the U.S. still wanted a two-state solution.

During the call, Rhodes confirmed many details that had been previously reported on Obama’s trip. He emphasized that the president is prepared to discuss a broad agenda in his short, three and a half-day trip to the region, including the situation in Syria, Jordan, the peace process and Iran.

The president will arrive in Israel next Wednesday, where he will take part in discussions with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently convened a government that, as Haaretz writer Barak Ravid noted, will “be filled by settlers and their supporters.” Obama will also partake in events like the viewing of an Iron Dome battery, laying a wreath at the tombs of Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin and visiting Yad Vashem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The viewing of the Iron Dome system, which is funded by the U.S. and has been hailed as key to Israeli security, comes after reports have emerged that the the system may not be all that its cracked up to be.

“We felt like this was an important opportunity for the President to go to the region,” said Rhodes. “In Israel, we felt that with a new Israeli government coming into place and a new U.S. term here, this is an important opportunity for the President to consult with the Israeli government on the broad range of issues where we cooperate.” Rhodes said that Obama has spent more time with Netanyahu than any other leader since Obama took office. Left unspoken on the call were any mention of illegal West Bank settlements and the blockade of Gaza.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro was also on the call, and he spoke of the “excitement” Israelis were feeling about Obama’s “historic” trip. The trip is a “manifestation of the close, enduring and warm ties between our two democracies, countries that share common interests and common values. And it’s a reaffirmation of our commitments to each other, including the United States’ strong, really unbreakable commitment to Israel’s security,” said Shapiro.

Tellingly, Rhodes said that the president would visit the Israel Museum to see the Dead Sea Scrolls, which, he said, “are a testament, of course, to the ancient Jewish connection to Israel.” That comment was a nod to Jewish leaders, who in a meeting about the upcoming trip urged Obama to say that Jews had Biblical connections to the land. Obama had miffed some Jewish leaders by implying in his Cairo speech that the Holocaust was a justification for the creation of Israel.

Also emphasized on the press call was America’s commitment to bolstering the Palestinian Authority, which has had to deal with increased Palestinian anger at the economic situation in the West Bank. “It’s a very important time for us to also reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority…Of course, the United States has made a significant investment in the Palestinian Authority.” According to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. annually gives the PA $200 million in direct budgetary assistance and $100 million in “non-lethal” security assistance. The PA’s security forces have cracked down on armed resistance to Israel, as well as on dissent against their own rule.

While President Obama will meet with Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and a group of young Palestinians, Palestinian activists have already planned to protest Obama’s visit. The youth group Palestinians for Dignity has “rejected” Obama’s visit and has called for protests against “against the possible return to negotiations.”

“The visit aims to achieve three goals,” the Palestinians for Dignity group said in a press release. “First, to relieve the pressure off the Israeli government, which is suffering increased international isolation (albeit with words more than actions). Second, to restrain the frustration of the Palestinian street simmering in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners and finally, to prolong the expected lifetime of the PA, which after 20 years is becoming more and more disconnected from its people.”

The impact of the Arab Spring on Israel and the Iranian nuclear program were also topics that Rhodes touched on in response to questions from reporters. “In [Obama’s] speech in May 2011, he made his point that as governments in the region are more responsive to popular opinion, and the aspirations of their people, it’s going to change the broader political dynamic in the region,” said Rhodes. “It’s obviously a good thing that the people of the region are seeking to express themselves politically…Israel, as it makes peace, is going to have to recognize the broader role of public opinion in peacemaking.”

Rhodes also touched on what the Obama administration expected of Egypt. “We’ve been very clear with the Egyptian government, the democratically elected government in Egypt, that they need to uphold their responsibilities, including their international agreements, which obviously includes the peace treaty with Israel, and thus far they have done that.” Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood-led Egyptian government recently cracked down on smuggling tunnels into Gaza that are a boon to the Hamas-run government. While the Egyptian leadership’s rhetoric may have changed on Israel/Palestine, the policy has remained largely the same, which is how the U.S. wants to keep it.

Rhodes also reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and rejected the option of containment, though U.S. intelligence director James Clapper recently said that “we do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons” and that the world would know if Iran did move to develop a weapon. Rhodes praised the current international sanctions on Iran, and said that while the U.S. wants to resolve the issue peacefully, “we will do what we must as a country to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.”

Towards the end of the call, in response to a question, Rhodes said that Obama’s Cairo speech laid out a “framework that holds.” In that speech, Obama said that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements…It is time for these settlements to stop.” But Rhodes did not mention the issue of settlements during the call–and gave no indication that illegal colonies in the West Bank would be an agenda topic for when Obama meets with Netanyahu.

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