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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A presidential trip designed as little more than a polite visit aimed at strengthening relations — while avoiding thorny issues — could be forced to face unexpectedly tough and substantive questions as conditions on the ground in Israel and the West Bank change rapidly.

Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and an unresolved post-election coalition process in Israel are dominating developments in the region even as aides to Barack Obama plan his first trip as president to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan.

In the West Bank, tensions have been on the rise, leading some to speculate that an all-out flare-up, perhaps in the shape of a third intifada, could be imminent. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still struggling to build a new coalition. This is forcing the White House to prepare for talks with a government whose makeup is still unknown.

The administration came up with a three-pronged agenda for Obama’s Middle East tour, which starts on March 20. The intended agenda focuses on Iran’s nuclear program, on Syria’s civil war, which threatens to disintegrate the country, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Israeli official announcements, the Palestinian issue has received third billing. But recent events could force Obama to make the Palestinian issue a priority.

“I’d be astonished if he does not use the unsurpassed platform as president of the United States to try and revive public interest in the peace process,” said David Makovsky, a prominent scholar and analyst of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He made clear however, that when dealing with the issue, Obama will try to speak to Israel’s public opinion rather than presenting specific plans and ideas.

Unrest in the West Bank has been building in recent weeks, even before the announcement of Obama’s visit, following a decision by some Palestinians detained by Israel to go on a hunger strike to protest their imprisonment without trial. Thousands of Palestinians expressed their support for the hunger strikers in mass demonstrations.

Tensions ratcheted even higher, reaching a level not seen since the days of the last intifada, in 2000, when Arafat Jaradat, a 30-year-old Palestinian inmate arrested on February 18, died six days later in an Israeli prison. Israeli authorities say the cause of his death remains undetermined despite an autopsy conducted on his body by Israeli pathologists. Palestinian officials point to the autopsy’s findings of bodily bruises and two broken ribs as evidence that he was tortured.

Husam Zomlot, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction, told the Forward that he believes the unrest in the West Bank “should help, and it should affect the agenda for the visit, taking it from something ceremonial to something that could look at the real issues.”

Ramallah-based Zomlot, who is deputy commissioner of Fatah’s International Relations Commission, claimed that recent actions by Israel have created a situation “on the edge of explosion.” He cited in particular numerous detentions of Palestinians without trial, Israel’s re-arrest of some prisoners it released in the October 2011 deal that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the detention and unexplained death of Jaradat.

In fact, many Palestinians believe that a backdrop of unrest will focus the presidential visit on Israeli-Palestinian peace. But widespread speculation among Israelis that the unrest has been orchestrated for this reason is being met with disdain.

The idea is “extremely cynical,” P.A. spokeswoman Nour Odeh said. “Palestinians don’t use their lives as a way to promote their cause.”

Odeh said the unrest is spontaneous. She insisted: “Nobody is interested in an escalation on the Palestinian side. That’s certainly not in the best interests of our people and certainly not the policy of our president or leadership.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat visited Washington in February to discuss the upcoming presidential visit with administration officials. Expectations on the Palestinian side run high, although officials in touch with the administration heard the term “listening tour” time and again from American officials describing Obama’s trip.

Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, said the administration was “keeping a close eye” on the situation in the West Bank, but he did not expect the White House to cancel or change the trip plans. “I doubt he will get into any specifics,” al-Omari said about Obama’s scheduled talks in Jerusalem and in Ramallah. Still, he noted that Obama could do a great service if he’d “express his commitment to the peace process, to the Palestinian Authority and to continuing U.S. aid to the Palestinians.”

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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