President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the Oval Office, Sept. 28, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama talks on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in the Oval Office, Sept. 28, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Obama’s Israel Trip: It’s Iran, Stupid! – OpEd


Much of the U.S. media that’s written about Pres. Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel (next month) has focused on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.  This narrative says Obama is coming to jump-start negotiations or reaffirm his commitment to finding common ground between the parties.

While Galey Tzahal reports (Hebrew and English summary here) Bibi’s remarks indicating the president is coming to discuss the Palestinians, Syria and Iran; it makes clear that Iran is the 800 lb. gorilla on this trip:

Netanyahu had indicated during his UN speech that Spring 2013 was a key date.  Obama fears that Bibi will attack Iran now that he’s backed by a new government and security cabinet of which Dan Meridor and Benny Begin are no longer members.

Obama decided to come to Israel and say: ‘Don’t attack Iran.  Let me make contacts with the Iranians on my own terms.  If there is a need, I will act against them.  We have the ability, you don’t.

Obama is also coming [later in March] because he doesn’t want to welcome Netanyahu to Washington at the Aipac conference.  The White House fears that Bibi would exploit this opportunity to give a bellicose speech about Iran.

Yediot Achronot’s lead story makes this even more clear:

Obama will reaffirm that he expects Jerusalem with cooperate with the effort to read a diplomatic solution with Iran.

Given that Obama is scheduled to spend a mere 2 hours with Mahmoud Abbas and the PA found out about the trip from media reports and not from direct contact with the White House, it seems extremely unlikely that the Palestinians are the fish Obama wants to fry.  Which is unfortunate, because whatever the trip’s purpose, there can’t be one that would further regional stability more than resolving this conflict.

The Israeli stories confirm that Obama is coming to Israel for one main reason: Iran.  Bibi Netanyahu is putting together a new governing coalition.  Many of the senior figures in the last security cabinet lost their seats for their supposedly over-moderate views.  They were opponents of an Iran strike.  They stopped Bibi from attacking at least once and possibly more times in his last term.  Obama doesn’t know what Bibi has in store this time round.  Will he appoint security ministers who want to go to war?

Obama is concerned enough about this possibility that he intends to come to Israel personally to tell the political leadership and Israeli people that there should be no war against Iran.  At least not till he decides there should be (a small consolation to Iranians).   He’s not going to put it that way: what he’s going to say is let us handle it.   One might argue that the President has already told Bibi this during his previous visits to Washington.  The difference is Obama has never spoken directly to the Israeli people.  He reckons, rightly so, that they’re on his side (as public opinion surveys show Israelis opposed to a unilateral Israeli attack) and not on Bibi’s on this one.

Obama wants to avoid the sort of drama that ensued last year when Obama addressed the Aipac conference just after Bibi had done so.  In that case, they had dueling speeches that showed the level of disagreement between them on Iran.  In this sense, Obama is coming to tell Bibi what’s “the program” and that he, the President, is the one writing it, not Bibi.

The Israeli prime minister is famously prickly and I doubt he will take direction on an issue so close to his political heart as this one.  But Obama will try.  I’m betting that Bibi is starting to perspire in anticipation of this visit.  In previous visits, it was Bibi invading Obama’s home turf.  And Bibi was not a polite guest.  He went over Obama’s head, trying to argue in effect that he didn’t need the president on this issue, since the Congress and American people were on his, and Israel’s side.

Being a deft student of political drama, Obama is going to be very cognizant of turning the tables on Netanyahu.  It is he who can now go over Bibi’s head and appeal to the Israeli people that war against Iran is a very bad idea.  Given what polls say, he will have very receptive audience.  Obama’s eloquence will only sell the pitch and seal the deal more firmly.  Few Israelis like Netanyahu personally.  But most say he’s a terrific political tactician.  But Bibi hasn’t met Barack yet on such terms.  I’d venture to say he’s going to run rings around Bibi on this trip.

That being said, I still believe Obama’s passivity on the Palestinian issue is inexcusable both politically and morally.  I don’t see anything productive coming from this trip regarding that.

There is an infinitesimal chance that the president, having shed his passivity toward the GOP in both his inauguration and State of the Union speeches, may be prepared to do the same regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  He may come to tell Bibi that the free ride is over.  That Israel can no longer count on U.S. backing in the UN and elsewhere in stymieing the Palestinians.  I wouldn’t hold my breath.  But miracles do happen.

This article appeared at Tikun Olam.

Richard Silverstein

Richard Silverstein is an author, journalist and blogger, with articles appearing in Haaretz, the Jewish Forward, Los Angeles Times, the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Al Jazeera English, and Alternet. His work has also been in the Seattle Times, American Conservative Magazine, Beliefnet and Tikkun Magazine, where he is on the advisory board.

Check out Silverstein's blog at Tikun Olam, one of the earliest liberal Jewish blogs, which he has maintained since February, 2003.

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