President’s Visit Marks the End to Israeli Insularity

The visit of U.S. President Barack Obama ends the period of insularity that Israelis enjoyed during the elections and the formation of the coalition. For half a year we disengaged from the world and focused inward, with public discourse centering on the number of ministers in the government, ridding the government of the ultra-Orthodox parties and “equalizing the burden.” Foreign policy consisted of a weekly warning by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Iranian nukes and the disintegration of Syria.

Now Obama is arriving and reminding us that Israel isn’t a remote island whose residents live just for themselves. His visit will bring forgotten concepts back to the headlines, first and foremost the settlements and Iran. The visiting president has no solutions. His visit will not bring about the end of the occupation, the dismantling of settlements, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank, or even the destruction of the Iranian nuclear program. He will seek to restrain the prime minister on two fronts: To prevent an Israeli attack on Iran and accelerated construction in the settlements.

By coming to Israel, Obama blocked Netanyahu from making a third victory trip to Washington and enjoying an enthusiastic reception from the Republicans, who would have invited the prime minister to once again address Congress or arranged some similar celebration. Now Obama is alone in the frame, without his rivals from the Republican Party. Netanyahu will have to deal with him alone, without his conservative cheering squad.

This isn’t necessarily to his detriment: From Netanyahu’s perspective, the visit comes at a perfect time. Its very occurrence refutes the argument that its right-wing government has left Israel internationally isolated. The leader of the free world is coming to Jerusalem, speaking to Israelis in their homes and calling their leader by his nickname. The media has spent lots of time prattling about the bad relationship between the two men, about their lack of chemistry, and about Obama’s expected revenge against Netanyahu, who had supported Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Now the prime minister can show his critics that they were wrong, that you can support Romney and still get a hug from Obama.

The visit serves the prime minister’s political and coalition needs very well. After two months in which Israelis were busy with the electoral stars, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu can take back the center stage. He alone controls foreign policy without any partners, and he will exploit the opportunities to speak and be photographed that Obama’s visit will provide. Bennett and Lapid will be pushed into the background, where Netanyahu would be happy to see them stay until the end of his term.

The meeting with Obama poses some risk for Netanyahu. The president wants to speak at the Jerusalem International Convention Center to the Israeli people, and his messages are liable to clash with the positions of the right-wing government, — for example, if he repeats what he said in his Cairo address in 2009 about the settlements being illegitimate and the Palestinians deserving a state. But even if Obama curses the occupation and the settlements, Netanyahu will try to minimize the difference of opinion and highlight his commitment to peace and his fidelity to the Bar-Ilan formula of two states for two peoples. The public statements by both Obama and Netanyahu before the visit indicate that they don’t want to fight this time, but to demonstrate mutual affection.

Obama is leaving the “bad cop” role to his secretary of state, John Kerry, who will remain in the region to nag Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas about resuming the diplomatic process. Kerry needs no grooming for this task; he is totally familiar with all the details of the negotiations Israel has held in the past with the Palestinians and with Syria.

This time, however, he isn’t here as an observer, as was the case when he was a senator; now he is the responsible intermediary. If he succeeds in making progress, he will fill his president’s Nobel Prize with some content. If he fails, as did his predecessors, he will be blamed. Obama will already be busy with other things, and Israel will return to its pleasant isolation, to deal with drafting the Haredim, imposing a core curriculum and choosing new chief rabbis.

Obama and Netanyahu leaving the White House in 2010.Credit: AP

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