Speaking with a Member of Congress yesterday at the Congressional Breakfast of the New York Jewish Community Relations Council about Obama’s forthcoming trip to Israel, there was a sense of frustration over the likelihood that little beyond photo-ops and cosmetics will emerge from the trip. This Member wondered why nothing positive can be injected into the trip. Beyond the need for Netanyahu to settle his coalition partners–which to some extent are in fact tied directly to the outcome of the trip—there is a real opportunity here for the Prime Minister to reap benefits from the Obama visit with virtually no security costs whatsoever.
Israel could—if Bibi and his new coalition were willing —challenge the Palestinians at every turn. He could please the President by expressing an interest to restart direct negotiations; immediately and without pre-conditions. Israel could present a strong case to the President, the Israeli public and the international community that this was a new Government and a new day.
Obama could then go to Ramallah and place the challenge directly before President Abbas. If the Palestinians were forthcoming—something which is doubtful at best—Israel comes out ahead for taking the lead and pushing for direct talks. If there is a negative or postponed response, Israel still comes out ahead. (It could even offer a settlement freeze as a comeback.)
It is a no-lose situation for any serious Israeli negotiating team. If Abbas refuses Israel has done the President’s bidding. They have shown Obama respect and appreciation for his visit and have lost nothing; but perhaps a restart to a peace process which will now force the PA to confront its own presumed bargaining ally, Hamas.
The discussion of the trip’s parameters will begin in Washington later this week when an Israeli delegation arrives and will then continue when the new Secretary of State John Kerry makes his first official trip to Israel to warm up the seat for the President’s visit. These meetings too could go a long way to trying to improve the personal atmospherics between the two leaders when Obama arrives in Jerusalem.
There is one large question in all this pre-trip hoopla which needs to be resolved first in Israel; will there be a Government in place and how positive will it be to engaging the Palestinians as a first step of the new coalition? While President Obama has made it clear that he is not going to the region with a peace proposal—said no doubt to avoid any possible disappointment—the Prime Minister and his new Government can either demonstrate to the President a self-confidence on the issue or ignore it.
The new Government could easily stay focused on Iran, Syria, and Egypt and ignore the peace process. Alternatively, Israel, which today is in an insecure political place in Europe, within the international community generally, and even in some circles in the American university scene; witness the events last week at Brooklyn College and at a number of University of California campuses could rise to the political challenge. The Palestinian cause is being trumpeted while Israel is being portrayed as stubborn, recalcitrant, inflexible, etc. Israel now could demonstrate that given a fair treatment this new Government is fully prepared to address the peace process issue. It can show that this coalition will be broad enough to address multiple security problems at once, even so early in the life of a new Government, at the same time that it deals with domestic challenges as well.