Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Arlene Kushner on Obama's Trip To Israel -- And Why She Is Underwhelmed and Dubious

From Arlene Kushner:
March 20, 2013


That's me.

The helicopters have been whirring overhead here in Jerusalem today, reminding me that President Obama is in town.  I'm too much of a cynic -- or a realist -- to be excited about this.
Netanyahu and Obama
Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90

It was all sweetness and light as the president stepped from his plane.  "It's good to be in Israel again," he declared (in Hebrew).  My mental response was: "So what kept you from visiting during the four years of your first term?"

If you wish, you can see the first moments of the president's arrival here
 I was going to say that nothing comes cheaper than words.  Often that is true, and he certainly has been well-prepped by Jewish advisors on what to say.  But sometimes there is import to words even when spoken by politicians.  During his initial talk at the airport, he said:
"...I know that in stepping foot on this land, I walk with you on the historic homeland of the Jewish people. "More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here. And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages — to be 'masters of their own fate' in 'their own sovereign state.'
"Read: Full text of Obama’s speech on arrival in Israel
Well!  That is a change.  When he was in Cairo for his major talk four years ago, he linked the formation of Israel to the Holocaust, raising considerable Jewish ire that he neglected our millennia-long connection to the land.  And now he has corrected this: He is acknowledging this land as Jewish.
This is not likely to go down well with the Palestinian Arabs, to whom he has been playing for so long, and who claim this land as their own.  Could it be that he is weary of them (see more on this below)? 
Don't know yet. But my gut sense is that he is not, not at bottom. 
Perhaps rather than saying I'm underwhelmed, I should say that I'm dubious.  I do not, for a moment, believe that the president of the US has become our best friend overnight.  The question, rather, is why the considerable change of tone -- which undoubtedly reflects a change in tactics -- and precisely what is it that he wants from us.
Remember that an enormous number of pleas were made -- including by prominent Americans -- for him to pardon Pollard, and perhaps bring him along on this trip.  What a act that would have been, from someone who's big on "good will gestures."  A gesture that would have gone well beyond words.
But no, this man, who would not even let Pollard attend his own father's funeral, either is simply without compassion or without a sense of justice in this situation.  Or he's holding Pollard as a bargaining chip, in return from something he wants from us.
And then there are his plans for his major talk here, tomorrow.  It should have been delivered at the Knesset and his decision not to do so represents a snub to the elected members of the Knesset, who are accustomed to being addressed by visiting heads of state.
What Obama is trying to do is appeal to the Israel people directly, circumventing their elected representatives. And he's attempting this via an address to university students, yet.  I've already written about the exclusion of the students of Ariel University, and so this entire gambit seems to be in poor taste. 
I suspect it speaks to his lack of faith in his ability to relate positively to our elected officials.  Or maybe he simply imagines he can sway the opinions of young people more readily.
President Obama meet first with President Peres this afternoon, amidst a good deal of  hoopla -- children singing and waving flags and such. Peres told him, "We trust you on Iran."
And then my internal question was "We do?"  What does trusting him mean?  That he'll act militarily before it's too late?  That he'll back us if we decide we cannot wait longer? Yes, talk like this -- Heaven help us -- is cheap.
Whatever substance is taking place during this "feel good" visit, of course, is occurring during Obama's talks with Netanyahu, at his residence.  The first part of those talks ended just a while ago, as I write, although I understand they returned for more talk after the press conference, now completed.
The Obama statements about "enduring commitments" to our security and a friendship that is "eternal" are all very nice, as far as they take us.  But the substance of those talks may yet hit us in the face.  The press conference hardly reflects all of that substance.  Press conferences such as these never do.
I will say, however, that the press conference indicates that interaction is more positive between the two leaders this time than at any time in the past. There was a warmth in the words, more positive body language and even humor.
You can see a video of the entire press conference here (scroll down about one-fourth of the page).  Stay with it through the reporters' questions, which are the most informative part:

As to Iran, it sounds as if the two have agreed to continue to disagree. Netanyahu acknowledges that Obama wants to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and Obama says he does not embrace a policy of containment but hopes that diplomacy will still work. 
Netanyahu, towards the end of questioning, also acknowledges the different perceptions as to timing.
What is most important here, I think is that Netanyahu said that Israel retains the right of self defense and that Obama recognizes this.  Obama has not convinced Netanyahu to simply let him handle matters.  The prime minister said (emphasis added):
"Today we have both the right and the capability to defend ourselves, as you said. Today the essence of the state of Israel is the fulfillment of the age old dream of the Jewish people to be masters of our fate. This is the essence of the state, this is how I know that you appreciate we can not cede our right to defend ourselves even though you are our greatest friend and Israel has no greater friend than the US."
As to Syria, there is great concern mutually, for things are deteriorating rapidly there (I've said this before -- but the deterioration continues).  Now there is some evidence that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people yesterday -- but American officials are still not confirming this (or are in denial because of what it would mean).  I sensed a bit of a hedge on this from Obama. And there was enormous defensiveness regarding a journalist's question as to why the US hasn't acted in Syria to stop the carnage until now.
And then there are the Palestinian Arabs and the question of "peace negotiations."
Netanyahu has come forth once again -- sigh -- with his standard line about being committed to two states for two peoples, and sitting down at the table without pre-conditions.  If he holds to his insistence that there be no pre-conditions, we'll be OK, because the Palestinian Arabs are demanding several concessions upfront -- a building freeze, release of all prisoners, etc.
Obama said things that are simply erroneous, however, and which I cannot let pass.  He spoke of a year of quiet, with no deaths to Israelis from terrorist attacks coming from Judea and Samaria.  He suggested that this was because of a strong PA, cooperating with the international community. What he was referring to were the PA security forces, for which the US has spent a fortune. 
The bottom line here is that those security forces have never been effective, and have been deteriorating in the last year.  The PA forces have never been eager to take on terrorists, from Hamas or other groups (including those affiliated with Fatah).  There are instances now of PA security officers providing information to Hamas.  It is the diligence of the IDF that has kept terrorists from acting.  If the IDF has to pull back, we're in trouble
It is absolutely true that the US supports Israel's security in a host of ways, such as with funding for Iron Dome.  But what Obama sees as being in Israel's best security interest, is not necessarily what IS in our best interest.
It has been suggested that a chastened Obama now recognizes that no agreement between Israel and the PA is possible.  Thus, goes the thinking in some quarters, he will treat it as a diplomatic victory if he simply gets the two sides to sit down together. 
This, quite obviously, would mean considerable Israeli concessions.  And that may be what all of this feel-good talk is about: to soften us up for the demands from Obama yet to come. 
But...there are also those who see what Obama is now doing as the first part of a good cop-bad cop routine.  After he's done making us feel good, he will send Secretary of State John Kerry in for the kill.  This is not an implausible scenario:
Kerry is here now, actually flew in yesterday -- and will remain for the duration of Obama's visit. On Friday, when Obama leaves, he will as well -- going for meetings in Jordan. But then Saturday night he will return here to meet with Netanyahu again.  That meeting will be all business -- without the fanfare, the children singing, the flags waving and all the rest.
Obama goes to Ramallah tomorrow morning for talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.  Will he assure them not to worry because he'll get us to make significant concessions? 
What I noticed during the press conference is that he offered praise of the PA for "cooperating with the international community." 
There have been Palestinian Arab groups in Ramallah and Bethlehem expressing hostility to Obama, saying he's a friend to the Zionists, etc.  There have been shouts from crowds about his not being welcome.  Shoes have been thrown at his picture on billboards and on one occasion in Bethlehem, his picture was burned. 
And now comes the worst because of association directly with the PA:
"Just before U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the PA-run newspaper Al-Hayat Al-Jadida chose to print anti-American and pro-Hitler comments in an opinion piece. "'Our history is replete with lies ... [including] the lie about al-Qaida and the September 11 [2001] events, which asserted that Muslim terrorists committed it, and that it was not an internal American action by the Freemasons,' opinion writer Hassan Ouda Abu Zaher wrote in an op-ed published Monday. "The op-ed, which was translated by Palestinian Media Watch, also suggests that Hitler was greater than both Churchill and Roosevelt."
This is what he's headed to, and, you can rest assured, a great number of demands by Abbas regarding what must be done for the PA.  How I would love to be a fly on the wall for the Obama-Abbas talks.
Obama then returns for his talk to our university students.  We'll know more about where he stands tomorrow, after the press conference I assume he'll have in Ramallah, and then the talk in Jerusalem.
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.  If it is reproduced and emphasis is added, the fact that it has been added must be noted.
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