March 10, 2013

Obama's low-risk, low-yield Israel visit

Any visit by the U.S. President is a big deal, especially to a country like Israel that follows every hiccup in Washington with great interest and anxiety. But from the American side, it will be more show than tell, with little chance of candor or contention. 

President Obama's upcoming visit to Israel will not be launching or leading to any new ventures into Middle East peacemaking. Both he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are still getting their teams in place after each was just re-elected. And there's still plenty of institutional memory in the Obama White House to understand what Hillary Clinton learned from her husband's experience, and from her own as recent Secretary of State: Netanyahu is just not that guy.

Thanks to Netanyahu -- and many Israelis evidently are grateful for this -- Israel's 15 minutes of relevance are now up, at least for this political era. By relevance, I mean, as far as making the Middle East easier for the United States; being considered part of Washington's decision team along with other allies like the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Japan, NATO, et al. Ironically, the closest partnership in the U.S.-Israeli relationship is now between Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whose nomination was almost torpedoed by Netanyahu's true friends in Washington.

Obama tried to move the Israeli and Palestinian sides back to where they were just before Netanyahu, with regular talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but to no avail. Obama even earned himself lectures from Netanyahu, in his own White House. Rather than looking ridiculous for trying to get a full-fledged Israeli settlement freeze before Netanyahu completed sidelining the Palestinian moderates, Obama instead can focus on Syria and Iran. By his response to those two imminent threats, it's Netanyahu who often looks a little silly -- complaining of U.S. appeasement one day, affirming Washington's and even the UN's strategies the very next day.

The President knows to tell Israelis -- and Netanyahu -- just what they want to hear: Great job, "never again" (Iran, Holocaust), number-one ally anywhere, got your back, Iron Dome, Am Yisrael Chai. Meet some students, collect Presidential medal, and board Air Force One. It appears he won't even have to brave an address to the newly sworn-in, untested and traditionally testy Knesset.

As Obama begins his second and final term, he still has to contend with Afghanistan, Syria and Iran in the Middle East, plus Russia, China and other challenges worldwide. Domestically, he faces his biggest headaches on just about every possible front. With no substantive Watergate-style scandal that needs distracting by Henry Kissinger, there would be little reason to devote precious political capital to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations even if it looked like Israel and the Palestinians were available. And they are not.

A few weeks ago, I waved a yellow flag over the notion that assigning moderate Tzipi Livni to shepherd the peace process was anything more than a cosmetic bluff by Netanyahu. As Justice Minister and head of her own new party, Livni will be in no position to take any meaningful peace initiatives, especially since the ruling Likud Party will be keeping the Foreign Affairs portfolio for itself. This means anything she tries will be subject to interference and veto by Avigdor Lierberman -- likely to return as Foreign Minister -- and the Prime Minister himself. When Lieberman filled in for Netanyahu to deliver Israel's speech to the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, he spent much of his time justifying population transfer -- 'nuf said?

Netanyahu will get to impress his hometown crowd, and Obama will have kicked off his second term by silencing many of his critics from within the pro-Israel (and Jewish establishment). If something unforeseen suddenly creates an opening for renewed peace efforts, Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry can always answer the call as needed -- as long as they don't think they'll be wasting their time. There's been enough of that already.