By Barry Rubin
The Obama visit to Israel has become an unlimited love fest with expressions of mutual admiration and total agreement. In his joint press conference with Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the foremost issue they were discussing was “Iran's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons.”
Netanyahu put forward his position by praising Obama for saying he was determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons using “determined diplomacy and strong sanctions.”
But, Netanyahu continued, despite all the great things Obama had done Iran’s nuclear program continued and said, “And as you know, my view is that in order to stop Iran's nuclear programs peacefully, diplomacy and sanctions must be augmented by clear and credible threat of military action.”
Netanyahu thus tried to build on Obama’s previous statements to thank Obama “for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself by itself against any threat.” In other words, he suggested implicitly that supporting an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities was a logical outgrowth of Obama’s policies, an idea that Obama does not share.
Whether right or not, Netanyahu suggested that there was only about a year before Iran got to the verge of the ability to have weapons. Thus, he is putting a time limit on how long diplomacy and sanctions can be tried.
He also subtly asserted Israel’s need for independent action: “I know that you appreciate that Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends, and Israel has no better friend than the United States of America.”
Regarding Syria, Netanyahu noted that this, too, was discussed and that both countries want to see a stable and peaceful Syria. In addition, the weapons in Syria should not fall into the hands of terrorists.
The problem, of course, is that Obama is supporting a Syrian regime that would be Islamist and under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, a sworn enemy of Israel. Moreover, since the United States is practically handing out weapons to terrorists it is hard to imagine that these arms have not already fallen into the wrong hands.
Netanyahu concluded: “And I have no doubt that the best way to do that is to work closely with the United States and other countries in the region to address this challenge, and that is what we intend to do.” In other words, Israel will try to get U.S. policy to be careful and await the day it will come to its senses when it sees the size of the problem Washington has helped create.
The third point of discussion was the “peace process.” Netanyahu assured Obama that he was fully committed to peace and to a two-state solution. He is ready to negotiate without preconditions and work toward a historic compromise.
Here, Netanyahu knows that the Palestinian leadership is neither ready to negotiate unconditionally or make any historic compromises beyond accepting the pre-1967 boundaries, though even then on demand that hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs be settled inside Israel’s borders.
In his response, Obama praised Israel’s “thriving democracy,” Israel’s unique security needs, his appreciation about the threat from Hamas, and his commitment to Israel’s security. He noted such things as military and intelligence cooperation, joint exercises and training, and security assistance and advanced technology.
Almost openly making an appeal for domestic support, Obama stated:
“In short -- and I don't think is just my opinion; I think, Bibi, you would share this -- America's support for Israel's security is unprecedented, and the alliance between our nations has never been stronger.”
In other words, so Mr. Prime Minister don’t you think that I’m the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House? Netanyahu wasn’t going to say “no.” His answer later in the press conference, though, was on his own terms:
“I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, Israel's right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. We just heard those important words now. And I think that sums up our -- I would say, our common view.”
In other words, yes, Obama has laid the basis for Israel saying that he is willing to support it in defending itself even if that requires an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. I don’t think Netanyahu believes that but he has to try that gambit.
Then Obama made an extraordinary statement:
“I think that what Bibi alluded to, which is absolutely correct, is each country has to make its own decisions when it comes to the awesome decision to engage in any kind of military action. And Israel is differently situated than the United States, and I would not expect that the prime minister would make a decision about his country's security and defer that to any other country, any more than the United States would defer our decisions about what was important for our national security.”
What Obama just said publicly is that if Netanyahu decided that Israel’s defense required an attack on Iran, the president would not expect the prime minister to be deterred by U.S. opposition. Did Obama mean that? It is hard to believe that he did, yet what no Israeli leader is going to miss that seeming “green light.”
Obama announced continued military assistance to Israel, continued funding for the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, and other unspecified help.
Naturally, Obama continued, any two-state solution must leave Israel secure alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state.
One statement that probably left Israeli officials amused was when Obama said:
“I'd note that last year was a milestone, the first year in four decades when not a single Israeli citizen lost their life because of terrorism emanating from the West Bank. It's a reminder that Israel has a profound interest in a strong and effective Palestinian Authority.”
They know how much the Palestinian Authority has done to promote violence, how weak and ineffective it is, and how much its survival is due to Israel’s protection.
Turning to regional issues, Obama said:
“As the United States supports the Egyptian people in their historic transition to democracy, we continue to underscore the necessity of Egypt contributing to regional security, preventing Hamas from rearming and upholding its peace treaty with Israel.”
Obama barely mentioned getting Egypt to maintain its peace treaty with Israel, a vital issue. Pushing Egypt to prevent Hamas from getting more weapons—a commitment under the last ceasefire between Israel and Hamas—has been an achievement for Obama. But much of the success is due to the recklessness of Hamas in going too far in supporting radical Egyptian Salafist groups that are attacking the Brotherhood regime.
He also mentioned support for Israel’s concern regarding Syria’s transfer of advanced weapons to Hizballah “that might be used against Israel” and efforts regarding Iran. Obama said what has been the standard U.S. position:
“We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” adding again that “all options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world's worst weapons.”
But what does this mean? If negotiations fail and sanctions do not intimidate Iran, that leaves either an attack or accepting that Iran gets nuclear weapons, that is, containment. There are no other options, unless Tehran decides to give up or just to have the ability to build nuclear weapons but don’t actually do so. That wishful thinking—it could happen but it is less likely—is the only thing that could get Obama out of his dilemma.
Obama spoke at length about how it isn’t yet clear what the Syrian regime has done regarding chemical weapons. He defended his administration as having been actively involved in trying to get rid of Assad.
He did not address the likelihood that U.S. policy is helping to produce a new Syrian regime that will be a radical Islamist government extremely hostile to Israel.
Another interesting point raised by Obama is his acknowledgment that “what was already a pretty tough neighborhood has gotten tougher” and Israel could expect U.S. support not only because of Israel but due to U.S. interests. Obviously, if the neighborhood has gotten tougher it is due to U.S. policies toward Islamists coming to power.
Yet, again, Obama does not link this situation to his own behavior. So does he really understand the implications of what he’s saying or does he still feel it is the time for Israel to make risky concessions toward the Arabs? Perhaps Obama now does understand that, another factor in making the “peace process” a mere rhetorical flourish rather than a serious policy option.
Obama then spoke at length about why the “peace process” wasn’t advancing. And Obama added accurately—obviously reflecting internal discussions that have been going on in the U.S. government:
“And I purposely did not want to come here and make some big announcement that might not match up with what the realities and possibilities on the ground are.”
Obama had thus gone to a point where an American reporter could ask, very politely, whether the president might not have worked very effectively on the issue in his first term. He then rewrote history to say that he merely promised to work on a solution during his first term. He even blamed the press for exaggerating his emphasis on the issue. It was that blatant.
Yet he added:
“But ultimately, this is a really hard problem. It's been lingering for over six decades. And the parties involved have, you know, some profound interests that you can't spin, you can't smooth over. And it is a hard slog to work through all of these issues”
In other words, although he will never say so openly, he was wrong in thinking the problem could be solved easily and he now knows better. To listen to Obama you get the impression that he expects no progress in his second term either. In fact he reduced expectations pretty low:
“And -- and -- and my goal here is just to make sure that the United States is a positive force in trying to create those opportunities as frequently as possible….”
So this is Middle East policy in Obama’s second-term: downplaying Israel-Palestinian issues, pushing for a new regime in Syria while disregarding the real dangers of producing a monster there, and trying to convince Israel from not attacking Iran by insisting that all options are on the table although his bluff will be called at some point.
On bilateral relations, this represents a gain for Israel but it is still stuck in dealing with radical Arab regimes which U.S. policy is not going to confront and which it even sees as friendly. Moreover, for the next year Israel will enjoy firm American rhetoric on Iran but what if things come to a crunch? Obama’s hints and pledges could collapse like a house of cards once Tehran approaches a nuclear weapons’ arsenal.
Also, Obama now faces the situation of previous American presidents, a dilemma that he has long ridiculed. The Saudis and Jordanians, along with some other countries, don't care but the Iranian, Turkish, and a number of Arab regimes (including the Palestinian Authority) are going to be outraged by what Obama did and said. The Islamists will see this as a declaration of war, though of course they already viewed themselves as in a state of war with America. The Cairo speech will be spit upon; all the efforts to distance himself from Israel and create a new orientation for U.S. policy have failed.
Obama is now--on matters directly regarding Israel--a typical American president. The idea that Obama made policy out of raw hatred against Israel should be put to rest.
Nevertheless, the incompetence and the deluded strategy toward Islamists still remain, as does the dangerous situation for U.S. interests that Obama has helped create. Fireworks will no doubt take place during Obama's second term.
PS: Palestinian anti-Obama demonstrations showed the "gratitude" amassed for Obama's previous support by branding him as a Zionist, imperialist running dog. But one detail drew my close attention. The demonstrators sang a song called "America is the head of the snake." That's the song that then PLO leader Yasir Arafat led in singing at the Palestine National Council meeting almost 45 years ago. In other words, after 45 years of effort and especially the last 23 years in which America tried to help create a Palestinian Arab state, it has made zero progress toward winning Palestinian support or recognition of America's aid and efforts. The same story, of course, will be reproduced regarding Obama's efforts to show his respect for Islam and his empathy for Islamism.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.