Bibi’s trip to Washington is no vacation
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
As if preparing for his visit to the United States was not challenging enough, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing an escalation in domestic terrorist attacks and civil unrest. Hoping to smooth things over with President Obama after months of acrimony over the Iran nuclear deal, there is even the possibility that he will need to call off his Nov. 9 Washington visit.
In the weeks since opponents of the Iran agreement failed to corral enough members of Congress to undermine it, Netanyahu has sought to settle the waters between Jerusalem and Washington. He declared the Temple Mount area off-limits for all members of his government and all members of the Knesset. Netanyahu thus sought to stave off any further provocations from his right-wing supporters in the Knesset. Similarly, despite the violence in the streets, he has resisted calls from his coalition partners to announce the expansion of settlements, a common response to terror attacks and unrest.
In addition, Netanyahu has appeared to support — or at least not reject — the U.S. response to the Syrian crisis, where both Russia and Iran continue to support President Bashar Assad. And in a small but symbolic gesture, Netanyahu plans to address the annual meeting of the General Assembly of Jewish Federations of North America — to be held in Washington, DC — on the day following his meeting with the president, and not beforehand.
In addition to repairing the U.S.-Israel relationship, Netanyahu is coming to Washington with a wish list of weapons systems, which presumably already has been presented to the Pentagon representatives by the Israeli military. All that remains is for the details of the package to be announced as part of any post-meeting statement or news conference. The key element of this package, according to defense experts, is whether and if so when the United States will deliver to Israel the newest, 30,000-pound massive ordinance penetrator, or bunker buster, bombs, as well as the B-52 bombers outfitted to carry them that the United States has prepositioned there already. Israel supporters in Congress want Israel to have the capability to take out Iranian military and nuclear facilities buried deep underground.
In exchange for anything approaching these requests, Israel will need to show a willingness to resume peace talks with the Palestinians, a priority of both the president and Secretary of State John Kerry. Given that the Palestinians and the U.S. will urge a total cessation of settlement construction as a prior condition for such talks, Netanyahu will need to push extremely hard against his right-wing coalition members who totally oppose a freeze. Even if the United States assures the prime minister that it will veto any unilateral pro-Palestinian measures in the UN Security Council, it is not clear whether his government can survive a rebellion from the Right (which also explains why Netanyahu continues to make overtures to the Zionist Camp to join a national unity government). Given the chaos which is escalating throughout the region, especially in Syria, movement on a peace process is one of the few issues that the Obama administration believes, in their final 15 months, can still show any progress.
Finally, the two leaders will discuss Russia’s new role in the Middle East and the potential threat that it — or the weapons which it is delivering to Syria — poses to Israel. This would be especially dangerous if the new artillery and planes ended up in the hands of Hizbullah. They will also consider the potential dangers Islamic State presents to Israel. Israel and the U.S. will pledge to look forward and past the Iran deal, leaving Netanyahu to return home to what could be a nascent third Intifada.