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Israel

No Change You Can Believe In - Israel Is All Wrong About Obama's Visit

President Obama's arrival in Israel with no new peace proposal to offer is reassuring to many Israelis. They should be worried instead.

President Obama's March 20, 2013 visit of an Iron Dome Battery in Tel Aviv, Israel
President Obama's March 20, 2013 visit of an Iron Dome Battery in Tel Aviv, Israel
Dominique Moïsi

-Analysis-

PARIS “Thank God, Obama is coming without a peace plan!” As the president of the United States arrives in Jerusalem, the Israelis seem to be torn between relief and ironic resignation.

The visit – which would have been perceived as of considerable significance had it happened in March 2009, after Obama was elected for the first time – is lackluster at best, having lost most of its emotional and strategic importance.

Four years ago, the Israeli “peace camp,” the U.S. and Europe were waiting fervently for the new president to come to Jerusalem. With the support of key personalities from the American Jewish community and some Arab world leaders, Obama would have found the right words to bring the Israelis and Palestinians together on the road to peace.

His speech at the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament) would have had the same impact for the Middle East as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. His eloquence as well as his meaningful economical and strategic arguments would have broken down the wall of distrust between the people – and this would have all happened in the holy city of Jerusalem. But the dream never became a reality. It was probably already just a dream in 2009, a pleasant illusion – far removed from the real world. In 2009 the U.S. didn’t have the will nor the means to impose peace on Israelis and Palestinians, who believed less and less in a two-state solution.

In March 2013, the situation is even worse. People don’t expect much from Obama’s visit, but this is not out fear of being sorely disappointed. The truth is that in the past four years, all the indicators of hope have veered to their lowest level. Is Obama’s 2013 visit a sign of the U.S.’s new international status, the beginning of a world characterized by the U.S.’s powerlessness instead of its influence? There is no passing of the baton. In the absence of America, no one else is picking up the slack.

Because of international, regional and local changes, the situation is much more complex today than it was previously. From the local aspect, Israel has hardened its stance in the last few years. Two months ago, Israel voted against the ruling coalition, but it was not a vote in favor of a moderate center, nor was it a vote for resuming negotiations with the Palestinians. It was first and foremost a societal and economic vote to denounce the inequalities between rich and poor, religious and secular.

As for the deeply divided Palestinians, they seem closer to a third intifada than to the negotiation table. President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, whom Obama is scheduled to meet in Ramallah on Thursday, has never been so weak politically.

Paradigm shifts

From a regional aspect, the instability created by the Arab Spring is not conducive to change. “We shouldn’t be adding complications to an already unmanageable situation,” a former high-ranking U.S. official tells me. In other words, the best thing to do is to keep one's energy for other more pressing issues, where there is still time to do something. The Iranians want the nuclear bomb too much, while the Israelis and Palestinians don’t want peace strongly enough. So let’s focus on Teheran.

Paradoxically, as the U.S. and Israel are slowly drifting apart, they are both converging in the same direction – Asia. Israel is tempted to turn to Asia, while the U.S. considers it a strategic priority.

Israel is still strategically dependent on the U.S., however the “sequestration” might have an impact on the military assistance doled out by Washington. The U.S. meanwhile is trying to reduce dramatically its energy dependence on the Middle East.

Are the Israeli leaders aware of this paradigm shift? A few months prior to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Prime Minister Golda Meir, while in Washington, assured Richard Nixon that “Israel’s situation had never been better.” Israel’s former security chiefs have a very different point of view. In the Oscar-nominated documentary The Gatekeepers, they express their worries for the long term. They say that in the absence of a peace treaty with the Palestinians, time is not on Israel’s side. The Israelis, they say, are comfortable with the status quo, while the rage of the Palestinians has intensified because of the constant humiliation they are enduring.

Obama arrived in Jerusalem without a peace plan. This shouldn’t be perceived as a relief, but as a worry for Israelis.

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