Barack Obama Jets Out of Israel on High Note After Surprise Diplomatic Win

Turkey Breakthrough Caps Trip — Palestinians Grumble

Hasta La Vista: Barack Obama leaves Israel after a trip that analysts called a success — although expectations were set deliberately low.
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Hasta La Vista: Barack Obama leaves Israel after a trip that analysts called a success — although expectations were set deliberately low.

By Reuters

Published March 22, 2013.
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Iran topped their initial agenda, aides said, with Obama seeking to build mutual trust and convince Israel that he was serious when he said he would not let Iran get nuclear weapons.

As a joint news conference on Wednesday, Netanyahu repeated that Israel had a right to defend its own national interests, but added that he was “absolutely convinced” Obama meant what he said - a strong statement seen as significant by some analysts.

“Now I think there is almost complete understanding between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue,” said Amotz Asa-El, fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

“Specifically, they are waiting to see if the June election in Iran ignites some kind of social upheaval, a prospect that both Washington and Jerusalem obviously prefer,” he added, referring to a mid-year presidential poll.

Israel and Western powers believe Iran is looking to prepare a nuclear arsenal - something Tehran denies, while defending its right to enrich uranium for civil uses. Netanyahu has set a “red line” across Iran’s progress on enrichment, which he has said could be crossed in the spring or summer - hinting at unilateral military action unless the Islamic republic backs down.

Giora Eiland, a retired general and former Israeli national security adviser, said the prospect of such an attack was receding: “I think that the option still exists,” he said, “But that every day that passes lowers its chances of success.”

Reflecting Israel’s isolation in a largely hostile region, Obama engineered a call between Netanyahu and his Turkish counterpart on Friday, enabling the two U.S. allies to overcome a diplomatic crisis sparked by the deaths of nine Turks in 2010 during an Israeli commando raid off the Gaza Strip.

The move to normalise relations with a NATO member state that was one of its few Muslim friends in the region could help coordination to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war.

“Given what we see in the Middle East, we see a situation in which our relations with Turkey can be very, very important for the future, regarding what happens with Syria, but not just what happens with Syria,” said a source in Netanyahu’s office.

PALESTINIAN STALEMATE

Yet if the tensions with Turkey unexpectedly eased, Obama’s visit did little to raise hopes that the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict was any nearer resolution.

Going over the heads of Israeli leaders, who have questioned whether they have a viable negotiating partner on the other side of the separation barrier that twists through the West Bank, Obama appealed directly to ordinary citizens to push for change.

In a powerful speech to appreciative students, the U.S. president warned on Thursday that the Jewish state risked growing international isolation without a peace accord.

However, he did not bring any proposals on how to resume negotiations, which broke down in 2010, and he backed away from a previous demand for Israel to end settlement building, simply calling the construction an impediment to peace.

He promised that his new secretary of state, John Kerry, would dedicate much time and energy to the problem, but many Israelis saw his comments as a sign Washington would distance itself from a diplomatic quagmire familiar to his predecessors.

“The era when the USA pushed Israel and the Palestinians into a political process is gone,” said Gidi Grinstein, president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv-based think tank.

“In the absence of American vision and strategy, considering Obama’s priorities and with the present positions of Israel and the Palestinians, the USA is basically saying: ‘You call us. We won’t call you’,” he added.

Although Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed Obama’s speech, some of his political allies were more damning.

“Obama’s visit provides no clear way forward for a serious solution to the conflict,” said Wasel Abu Yousef of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. “It seems the U.S. is not interested in solving the conflict, but rather managing it.”


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