President Barack Obama arrived in Israel on Wednesday without any new peace initiative to offer disillusioned Palestinians and facing deep Israeli doubts over his pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
Making his first official visit here as president, Obama hopes to use the trip to reset his often fraught relations with both the Israelis and Palestinians in a choreographed three-day stay that is high on symbolism but low on expectations.
He was met at Tel Aviv airport by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Shimon Peres after Air Force One stopped next to a huge red carpet laid out down the tarmac.
Obama will hold lengthy talks with Netanyahu later in the day, with the two set to hold a news conference at 8:10 p.m. (6:10 p.m. ET). He will travel to the occupied West Bank on Thursday to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
U.S. officials say Obama will try to coax the Palestinians and Israelis back to peace talks. He will also seek to reassure Netanyahu he is committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb and discuss ways of containing Syria’s civil war.
A highlight of President Barack Obama’s visit to Israel next week will be a major speech in Jerusalem — with an audience full of students — where he will speak directly to Israelis for the first time.
That’s just one stop of Obama’s first foreign trip of his second term, designed to show — through substance and symbolism — the ironclad U.S. commitment to Israel, as the nation faces a potential nuclear threat from Iran and conflicts in Egypt and Syria threaten Israeli security.
The speech will give Obama an opportunity to bypass often critical Israeli media and hostile political figures during his first trip to Israel as president.
The U.S. Embassy in Israel is running an essay contest on Facebook, with up to 20 winners “who submit the most original and creative responses” to be invited to the speech, the embassy website said.
I wrote earlier this month how the visit — coming after Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election victories — give the leaders a chance to reset their strained relationship. Netanyahu was seen as a Mitt Romney supporter while Obama had to continuously prove his pro-Israel credentials during his campaign.
Obama’s swing includes Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Obama has met with U.S. Arab-American and Jewish leaders in separate sessions in recent weeks to discuss his trip.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says the government of Benjamin Netanyahu spent almost $3 billion in the past two years preparing for a war against Iran’s nuclear program that it probably never intended to wage.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Olmert said the sum was above and beyond the billions allocated to the defense budget and helped raise Israel’s fiscal deficit to heights it hadn’t reached in years. As a result, he said, Netanyahu would be forced to make broad spending cuts, if reelected next week, upsetting potential coalition partners that are accustomed to having their sectarian causes generously financed.
“The security establishment…on the instructions of the government spent an additional 11 billion shekels ($2.95 billion) beyond the regular budget of the Defense department to make preparations regarding a possible Israeli operation against Iran,” said Olmert, who is Netanyahu’s political rival.
He said the extra spending was designed to make the United States believe that Israel genuinely intended to attack Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu hoped the perception would prod President Obama, who opposes an Israeli strike, to organize tighter sanctions against Iran and take action of his own to prevent it from crossing the nuclear threshold.
“The general opinion of those that were involved [in the preparations] was that this was much more about rhetoric and less about a real determination to activate it,” Olmert told The Daily Beast.
FACING AN election in which his most dangerous competition is from the far right, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted a familiar tactic: a flurry of announcements of new construction in Jewish settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The predictable result has been a storm of denunciations by the United States and every other member of the U.N. Security Council, along with dire predictions that the new building would “make a negotiated two-state solution . . . very difficult to achieve,” as British Foreign Secretary William Hague put it.
The criticism is appropriate, in the sense that such unilateral action by Israel, like the unilateral Palestinian initiative to seek statehood recognition in November from the U.N. General Assembly, serves to complicate the negotiations that are the only realistic route to a Middle East peace. But the reaction is also counterproductive because it reinforces two mistaken but widely held notions: that the settlements are the principal obstacle to a deal and that further construction will make a Palestinian state impossible.
Twenty-five years ago, Israel’s government openly aimed at building West Bank settlements that would block a Palestinian state. But that policy changed following the 1993 Oslo accords. Mr. Netanyahu’s government, like several before it, has limited building almost entirely to areas that both sides expect Israel to annex through territorial swaps in an eventual settlement. For example, the Jerusalem neighborhoods where new construction was announced last month were conceded to Israel by Palestinian negotiators in 2008.
Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a confident note at the official launch of his re-election campaign last week, but to anybody who’s been watching Israeli political developments, it’s clear that with three weeks until Election Day, the prime minister suddenly has reasons to be fearful. Not for his job, of course—Netanyahu’s hold on the premiership remains unchallenged—but of the headaches he is suddenly likely to face as he assembles his next governing coalition.
Netanyahu’s re-election was supposed to be a pain-free affair. In late October, Netanyahu shocked the political world when he and hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”), would be running on a joint list in the elections. By adding Lieberman’s party, Netanyahu hoped to create a large unified rightist bloc that would minimize the concessions small parties usually extort from election victors looking to build a coalition. (Currently, Likud controls only 27 of the 66 Knesset members in the government.)
Initially, the gambit appeared to be paying off. Even after the Likud’s Tea Party-esque primary results last month, “Likud Beiteinu” looked set to duplicate or surpass the 38 seats former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon won in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada. But in recent weeks, the alliance has steadily hemorrhaged support, and it’s not clear that the bleeding has stopped. Three polls published last week had the list at 34 seats, and another had it down to 33—still nearly double that of the nearest competitor (the center-left Labor Party), but nowhere near the 42 seats the parties currently hold or the 45 forecast by the merger’s mastermind, American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. (It wouldn’t be Finkelstein’s first failed prophecy. Netanyahu was reportedly shocked by the U.S. election results after Finkelstein predicted a four-point Romney victory).
Why the sudden drop in support? Two primary factors seem to be at work.
It is a source of great frustration, even pain, among liberal American Jews that Israel finds such stalwart support among American evangelical Protestants, with whom they share very little. It is, of course, a source of great comfort to Israeli politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu and to his even more right-wing colleagues, that evangelical support for Israel is so strong. Evangelical support always struck me as a narrow reed on which to rest Israel’s fortunes in America, and not only because many evangelicals, in my experience, have no love for Jews as autonomous people, but merely as vehicles for the Christian redemption. I also thought it was odd to build a strategy around evangelicals because evangelicals don’t represent a majority of Americans.
Now, according to an important op-ed in The Times by a young evangelical pastor, it seems as if evangelicals represent fewer Americans than ever. I hope those Israelis who believe they can ignore the wishes of their liberal brethren (and their increasingly-former allies among non-Jewish liberals in the U.S.) read the whole thing. Here’s an excerpt:
In 2012 we witnessed a collapse in American evangelicalism. The old religious right largely failed to affect the Republican primaries, much less the presidential election. Last month, Americans voted in favor of same-sex marriage in four states, while Florida voters rejected an amendment to restrict abortion.
Much has been said about conservative Christians and their need to retool politically. But that is a smaller story, riding on the back of a larger reality: Evangelicalism as we knew it in the 20th century is disintegrating.
On Friday, Bibi Netanyahu’s government announced it was planning additional settlement construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. European capitals have demanded an explanation from Israeli diplomats, and the U.K. and France have contemplated summoning home their own envoys in protest. But the White House’s criticism has been fairly muted. “We oppose all unilateral actions,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday, “as they complicate efforts to resume direct, bilateral negotiations.”
To be sure, the White House is somewhat constrained in criticizing Israel for “unilateral actions” after Mahmoud Abbas went to the United Nations’ General Assembly to declare Palestine an independent state. And with delicate negotiations over the fiscal cliff foremost on the president’s agenda, the administration seems loath to give Republicans an opportunity to attack President Obama over Israel.
Still, the reticence is striking. Compare the White House’s language this week to its response in March 2010 when Israel announced that 1,600 new East Jerusalem housing units were approved during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit. The administration went ballistic. At the president’s instructions, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chewed out Netanyahu on a 45-minute phone call, which was conveniently leaked to the press. The administration “condemned” the “insulting” action, using language rarely used by one ally to describe the actions of another.
Some predicted that a second-term Obama would exact a certain amount of revenge against a world leader who openly challenged and even lectured him in the White House—but it appears the opposite has happened. The administration was strongly supportive of Israel during Operation Pillar of Defense, and the fact that it happened after the presidential elections was proof of Bibi’s good sense of timing and that Obama recognizes Israel as a strategic asset, not merely as an electoral chip. If the past few weeks are any guide, and with Netanyahu almost certain to win again in January, it looks like the dark ages of Obama-Netanyahu warfare may have ended.
The U.N. chief called for an immediate ceasefire in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed to the region with a message that escalation of the week-long conflict was in nobody’s interest.
Nevertheless, Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes continued for a seventh day.
Hamas militants said they fired 16 missiles at the southern Israeli city of Beersheba after Israel’s military targeted roughly 100 sites in Gaza overnight, including ammunition stores and the Gaza headquarters of the National Islamic Bank.
Some 110 Palestinians have died in a week of fighting, the majority of them civilians, including 27 children. Three Israelis died last week when a Gaza missile struck their house.
In Cairo, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate ceasefire and said an Israeli ground operation in Gaza would be a “dangerous escalation” that must be avoided.
He had held talks in the Egyptian capital with Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby and was due to meet Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Mursi before travelling to Israel for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel’s leaders weighed the benefits and risks of sending tanks and infantry into the densely populated coastal enclave two months before an Israeli election, and indicated they would prefer a diplomatic path backed by world powers, including U.S. President Barack Obama, the European Union and Russia.
The White House said Clinton was going to the Middle East for talks in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Cairo to try to calm the conflict. An Israeli sources said she was expected to meet Netanyahu on Wednesday.
he leader of Hamas said Monday it was up to Israel to end the new conflict it had started, adding that a “land war” would cost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the election.
“[Netanyahu] can do it, but he knows that it will not be a picnic and that it could be his political death and cost him the elections,” Khaled Meshaal, exiled leader of Hamas, told a news conference in Cairo.
“Whoever started the war must end it,” Meshaal said, adding that Netanyahu, who faces an election in January, had asked for a truce, an assertion a senior Israeli official described as untrue.
For its part, Israel said that while it was prepared to step up its offensive by sending in troops, it preferred a diplomatic solution that would end Palestinian rocket fire.
Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon has said that “if there is quiet in the south and no rockets and missiles are fired at Israel’s citizens, nor terrorist attacks engineered from the Gaza Strip, we will not attack.”
According to a poll by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, 84 percent of Israelis supported the current Gaza assault, but only 30 percent wanted an invasion, while 19 percent wanted their government to work on securing a truce soon.
Acting as a mediator, Egypt said Monday that a deal for a truce to end the fighting could be close, as Israel bombed dozens of suspected guerrilla sites in the densely populated Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in its campaign to quell militant rocket fire menacing nearly half of Israel’s population.
Despite his tough public posturing, the Israeli prime minister told Obama that he has no plans to launch a ground war in Gaza unless Hamas escalates its rocket attacks. Eli Lake reports.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave private assurances to Barack Obama on Friday evening that his country was not planning at that moment to launch a ground invasion of Gaza—but those plans would change, he said, if Hamas escalated its rocket war.
The private assurances were at odds with public signals from Israel’s military. Tanks and artillery gathered at the border with Gaza on Saturday in preparation for what looked like an incursion. Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman Avital Leibovich told The Telegraph, “Morale is high. We are currently training and preparing for ground possibilities.”
But this was not the message from the Israeli leader in his conversation with Obama, according to two U.S. officials briefed on the call. These sources say Netanyahu said Israel would not consider a full-scale ground invasion unless there was escalation from Hamas or a strike that caused significant casualties. There has not been, for example, a date set for such an invasion—nor are the other kinds of contingency plans Israel would need in such a circumstance in place, according to these U.S. officials, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the conversations.
One senior U.S. official told The Daily Beast, “The Israeli leadership at this point is leaning against a ground invasion. No one wants that. If Hamas ratchets up the pressure, however, they may elect to do so.”