JERUSALEM — President Obama arrives in Israel less burdened than any previous U.S. president by the diplomatic malignancy known as the peace process.
Obama has no new proposal to offer the Israelis and Palestinians. He harbors no genuine hope that fruitful talks will commence after he leaves. And that is perfectly fine. The Israelis and Palestinians don’t want any new offers, and their governments are too fragile to deal with one if it existed.
Because so much of presidential activity in the region has historically been tied to the peace process, Obama could be overlooked as an amiable tourist. There is, however, nothing idle or ambling about his itinerary. Yes, it’s heavy on symbolism. But it’s a symbolism that will cast a shadow for generations—possibly over all Israeli history.
Obama will honor the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, by laying a wreath on his tomb. Herzl introduced the idea of a Jewish state in his 1896 book Der Jundenstaat. Obama’s gesture will not only convey the presidential imprimatur to Zionism, it will also seek to erase the common Arab notion that Israel is an outgrowth of the Holocaust. Obama will also read the Dead Sea Scrolls and in so doing personally immerse himself—and therefore America—in a two-millennium-old Jewish connection to the Holy Land.
The president will speak throughout this visit about his desire to deter Iran with diplomacy. So far, talks have produced nothing to reassure anyone that Iran is anything but hell-bent on developing nukes. On this trip, much will be made of whether Obama’s red line (that which triggers military action) is the same as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s. Obama’s red line is nuclear-weapons development—that is, having one. Netanyahu’s line is capability—being able to build one, but not yet having one. This is not semantics.
But more important will be Obama, on Israeli soil and amid tributes to Zionism and the ancient Jewish attachment to the land of Israel, pledging U.S. blood and treasure to defend Israel against Iran—or to launch a preemptive strike with myriad dangerous and unpredictable consequences. It’s the kind of “symbolism” that will mark Obama’s presidency and cast a shadow over every future president.
If Obama doesn’t follow through, Israel’s history will never be the same, and all will know America blinked. If he does follow through, proving he was not bluffing, war will likely come in the next year or two. And the declaration will have come, for all practical purposes, while Obama was indulging in “symbolic tourism.”
It’s tourism only if you elevate the peace process above the threat of Iranian nukes. Add the disintegration of Syria, economic instability in Egypt, and refugee-fueled turmoil in Jordan, and you have one existential threat and three teetering nations. All of that eclipses any strategic or diplomatic curiosity about the so-called peace process.
Always encircled by enemies, Israel has sought to control, or at least influence, its fate by negotiating through military strength with rational nation-states that acted, for the most part, rationally.
What if Iran develops a nuclear weapon? What if Syria falls and chemical weapons land in the hands of Qaida-inspired or Iranian-backed terrorists? What if Jordan (now sheltering upward of 400,000 Syrian refugees) falls and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, said to number more than 50,000 in Syria, take up posts there and pummel or simply menace Israel? What if Egypt collapses because its Muslim Brotherhood government is far better at inspiring copycat cadres than at running an economy, attracting capital, maintaining tourism, or meeting basic human needs?
Robert Kennedy was known to say, “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt, and you can’t make peace without Syria.” Also in that Middle East of old, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir stated, “We have always said, in our war with Arabs we had a secret weapon—no alternative.”
Soon, there may be no Syria to make peace with and no Egypt to make war with. And no alternative for Israel but a shadow war with Qaida fighters or other Islamic radicals running on Iranian money and weapon stockpiles strewn over the smoldering, refugee-strewn wreckage of Syria and Jordan and a desperate, economically starved Egypt.
As for the peace process, Secretary of State John Kerry, thwarted by Obama in his attempts to get to the region first, will be invited to participate should anything arise. Kerry is eager to assist. Very eager. He is viewed as less micromanaged than his predecessor Hillary Rodham Clinton. Ordinarily, this would be an asset. But the Israelis and Palestinians have so little to discuss, let alone accomplish, that all there is to meet Kerry’s eagerness is unrequited dismay.
Obama started with hope in 2009 when he believed he could talk Netanyahu into prioritizing a peace deal with Palestinians over Iran’s nuclear weapons threat. Netanyahu, like most Israelis, grew up with a peace process. None grew up with a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu’s self-stated reason for being prime minister is to prevent any Israeli from so living.
This disagreement over priorities darkened relations from the start. Various slights and misunderstandings led to the questioning of motives and fealty. Subsequent grin-and-bear-it platitudes about “businesslike” dealings have led to a trip where talk runs rife of a “reset” in U.S.-Israeli relations and Obama’s hunger to relate better to Israelis.
By relating, Obama and the White House mean connecting with Israeli history and Israeli consciousness. And it is this process that matters most of all.
This article appears in the March 20, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.