Tensions Threaten To Complicate Obama’s Middle East Listening Tour

President's Trip Comes Amid Political and Social Unrest

Trading Places: Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political situation may change the nature of the American president’s upcoming trip.
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Trading Places: Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political situation may change the nature of the American president’s upcoming trip.

By Nathan Guttman and Nathan Jeffay

Published March 01, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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Israelis would like to see Obama focus as much attention as possible on Iran and deal with the Palestinian issue in as general terms as possible.

“I think the Obama visit to Israel has one major goal or objective: that the president of the U.S. will talk as directly as he can to the Israeli public and mainly on Iran,” said Yoram Meital, chair of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. He added that the idea is to undermine Netanyahu and any unilateral plans he may have for an Iran strike. Obama wants the Israeli public to put its faith in the United States on this issue, Meital said.

Following the West Bank unrest, Obama may focus on Israel-Palestinian peace a little more, “but it’s not the aim of the visit,” Meital said.

The veteran Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, founder of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information think tank, disagrees. “I don’t think it’s going to be about Iran,” he said. “I think the main message he’s coming to give is, ‘Forget about Iran — Iran is ours.’”

Obama will essentially be freeing up Israel from the Iran issue to seek peace with the Palestinians, Baskin predicted. And in his view, an escalation could undermine this, causing him to start “micromanaging the Israeli-Palestinian situation” instead of talking about big peace plans — or maybe to cancel his trip altogether.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on whether it believes that the West Bank unrest will have an impact on Obama’s trip, beyond directing the Forward to a statement from the prime minister’s office showing that Israeli-Palestinian peace featured prominently on the agenda when it was released, a week before the unrest began. Netanyahu “noted that the main issues of the visit will be focused on the diplomatic-security sphere — the Iranian nuclear issue, the situation in Syria and efforts to resume the negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Netanyahu’s own political situation could add another complicating factor to the president’s trip to the region.

With the deadline for forming a new government falling only days before Obama’s arrival, Netanyahu has yet to establish a new coalition. Negotiations for a coalition have reached a dead end following the unexpected insistence by Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party on changing Israeli rules regarding military service for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students. Lapid has formed a negotiating alliance with the right-wing Jewish Home party to fortify his position.

Analysts are unanimous in agreeing that Netanyahu will eventually succeed in forming a new government. But the unclear situation is making planning for Obama’s visit all the more complicated.

“There are just so many unknowns,” Makovsky said. He noted that America’s stance toward a Netanyahu government that would include a broad centrist component would be different from one toward a narrow government in which the right wing is dominant.

Nathan Guttman reported from Washington. Contact him at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter @nathanguttman

Nathan Jeffay reported from Jerusalem. Contact him at jeffay@forward.com


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