Barack Obama will soon make his first trip to Israel as US president. The president had faced fierce criticism during his first term for not visiting Israel, a close ally, and his fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a subject of heated debate in both countries.
The visit has huge significance for the region, though in the current political scenario it is unlikely to create any change in the status quo. The biggest beneficiary of the visit will be Netanyahu, who will get a golden opportunity to soothe the frayed relations with the US leader and push his aggressive agenda. Obama can use the occasion to lecture the hawkish Israeli leader on the importance of restarting the peace process, but that is unlikely to have much impact going by the policies of Netanyahu. The weakening of Netanyahu in the elections give some hope, but though there are indications that Tel Aviv might be open to the idea of restarting talks with Palestinians, there are no indications that Israelis will cede any ground in negotiations and make concessions to take the peace process forward.
During his visit, Obama will reiterate Washington’s unflinching support to Israel and threaten Iran with more sanctions. The president will pack enough punch in his speech to satisfy his listeners and convince them that he is as Israel-loving as any other US president.
Interestingly, Palestinians too are investing hope in Obama’s planned visit, with President Mahmoud Abbas saying he hoped it would mark the ‘beginning of a new US policy that will lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.’ But that is height of optimism, and is not supported by facts.
Even as the president prepares for the herculean and complicated task of bringing the two sides to the negotiating table, recent developments in the US show us how constrained he will be in playing the role of an impartial peace broker. An editorial in the New York Times talks of the belligerence and intolerance of Israeli supporters in the US, which has made even decent debates about Israel impossible. The sad truth is that, the newspaper says, there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in the US and too often in the US, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defence secretary is an example. He was attacked by Republicans not because he is not pro-Israel, but because he was not sufficiently pro-Israel. The increasing belligerence and unionism of the Jewish lobby in the US is killing the peace process. Netanyahu derives his courage from the helplessness and inability of US president and surprisingly, Palestinians and Arabs have done nothing to influence the US media in their favour.