Barack Obama's visit to Israel should be assessed according to its success on the two levels on which it is being conducted: public diplomacy, and the diplomacy of closed rooms. And the assessment needs to be made with due caution, since we are analyzing an event that is not yet over.
At the level of public diplomacy, this is a visit designed to win over Israeli hearts. Obama is well aware that the effort he invested in his first term to bring about an Israel-Palestinian settlement failed, and that one of the causes of its failure was the skeptical attitude of Israeli public opinion. The Israeli public treated the president with suspicion. He was perceived as someone who avoided visiting Israel during his term, and as giving priority to improving relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, demonstratively breaking the intimacy in relations with Israel in order to win credit with the Arabs and Muslims.
At the beginning of his second term, Obama has pointedly come to Israel early on, and the program of his visit and his public appearances are intended to persuade Israel that it has a friend in the White House committed to its security, a president who wants an Israel-Palestinian settlement to a large extent, though not exclusively, because of his concern for Israel's future.
So far, our guest has been adept at demonstrating the talents that gave him victory in two election campaigns. Obama will want to take advantage of the goodwill he has accumulated during his visit later on, when Secretary of State Kerry starts a renewed push for a settlement. At that stage, the disagreements will surface, and the president will seek to exploit the reserves of goodwill to persuade the Israeli public to support concessions, and even pressure the government to agree to them.
In assessing the status of the visit, we have to wait for the visits to Ramallah and Jordan, where Obama will meet rulers and people expecting to hear other messages from him. His ability to speak to Palestinians and Jordanians in a language and with formulae that will find favor with them without alienating Israelis will be an important test of the president's diplomatic and rhetorical skills.
In the closed rooms, Obama faces two challenges: the first is building a new, different relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a challenge for both men, as Netanyahu needs such a relationship no less than his US counterpart. In Obama's first term and Netanyahu's second government, relations between them were characterized by suspicion and distrust on both sides. If the two of them wish to deal successfully together with the Palestinian and Iranian issues, they will have to build trust. So far, in public, they have shown a rapport and friendliness that were lacking in the past. It goes without saying that both have a clear interest in the success of the visit and in instilling the perception that they have drawn a line under the sins of the past. Only later will we know whether this is a real success.
The second challenge lies in the differences of opinion themselves. Three main subjects are on the discussion table during the visit. On two of them, there are substantial differences in the positions of the two sides. Obama sees an Israel-Palestinian settlement similar to the one that Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert were prepared to accept. This is not Netanyahu's stance; he heads a government that does not support such a settlement. For the time being, the Palestinians are rejecting any interim arrangement. How to proceed from this point of departure without a crisis is one of the hardest questions facing the two sides.
As far as Iran is concerned, Obama and Netanyahu share a determination to deny Iran nuclear weapons, but their conceptions of time are different. Netanyahu wants decisive action within a short time before the window of opportunity for an Israeli military operation closes. Obama seeks more time to exhaust the possibilities of sanctions and diplomacy. He is asking Netanyahu to be patient, to let him see what diplomatic moves can do, and to rely on him that, if these moves fail, he will be ready for military action. This is a clear example of the vital need to build a relationship of trust, in which Netanyahu will be able to believe that the word of the president of the US is his bond.
The third matter, on which there is much greater identity of view, is the Syrian question. Both countries see the general outlines of the crisis in Syria and the problem of the use that the regime is liable to make of chemical weapons in a similar way. A decision on coordinating positions on these matters is comparatively easy.
When the visit is over and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, things will get back to diplomatic routine. The secretary of state will return to the region; he will try to promote a settlement, the problems will surface, and then we will be able to give a clearer and fuller answer to the question how successful President Obama has been in the task he took upon himself.
The writer is a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on March 21, 2013
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