At TAP the indispensable Gershom Gorenberg offers a succinct analysis of the opportunity associated with Barack Obama’s visit to Israel this week:
If Obama is coming to Israel to kick start peace efforts, the timing is right. Otherwise, he should stay home.
He notes that most of the formal and informal intel coming from the United States before the trip downplays its significance. But in that case, why now?
From an Israeli viewpoint, Air Force One will touch down at Ben-Gurion Airport less than 48 hours after Knesset approval of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government today. The prime minister managed to piece together a coalition last Friday afternoon just before the time allotted him under Israeli law ran out. Some of the incoming cabinet members found out only yesterday which ministries they have been assigned. The finance minister, Yair Lapid, has never held public office before. There will probably be only one cabinet meeting before the leader of Israel’s superpower ally arrives. At that meeting, the foreign minister’s chair will be empty, because Netanyahu is holding the job for his political partner, Avigdor Lieberman, on the assumption that Lieberman’s career will survive his current corruption trial. For Obama to insist on coming now is like your wealthy and normally well-behaved uncle (the one to whom you owe money) coming for dinner at your new house while the painters are still at work on the walls and before your furniture has arrived. Unless he has something really important to talk about, he has forgotten his manners.
On the other hand, if Obama has an audacious secret mission–say, to appeal to Israelis over the heads of their own government to support a reopening of serious negotiations with Palestinians–Gorenberg says the timing could not be better:
To form a coalition, Netanyahu had to bridge one of Israel’s ideological divides or another. In the end, he jury-rigged a government that includes the most dedicated opponents of a two-state solution, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, and the most vocal advocate of that solution, ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni. Livni was given responsibility for negotiating with the Palestinians—but the agreement with Bennett creates a ministerial committee to oversee the negotiations, in which Bennett is part of a hawkish majority. Even more important, Bennett’s party received control of the two ministries, Housing and Industry, that are the heavy machinery of settlement building. The Defense Ministry, responsible for governing occupied territory, is now in the hands of Moshe Ya’alon, an ex-general from Netanyahu’s Likud party….
In other words, whatever strength the Israeli right lost at the polls, it regained in coalition talks. Bennett and Partners are happy to build, and build, and build, while Livni struggles to restart negotiations. Accelerated settlement construction will not add to Palestinian trust of her efforts. It could add fuel to a new Palestinian uprising that threatens to ignite any hour now. While Washington carefully tries to build relations with new Arab regimes and to keep the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty intact, the last thing it needs is nightly newscasts of Israeli soldiers confronting Palestinian demonstrators.
The alternative to that scenario is an American push for peace: dates for returning to talks, guidelines for the agenda, a vision of the results—and a successful appeal to Israeli public opinion for support. In that case, the pieces of string holding together Netanyahu’s new coalition will come undone.
It all makes sense, and Gorenberg notes that for Obama the election-year constraints against messing with Bibi in such an audacious way are over. Here at home, we are already thinking of Obama once again as an embattled president whose post-re-election honeymoon, if any, is over. But compared to Netanyahu, who is supervising an exceptionally rickety government that could fall at any moment, he does indeed enjoy great freedom of action. The odds remain high against him using it, but it does seem that would be a more plausible rationale for this visit than Lenten Holy Land sight-seeing.