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Obama’s Subtle Message To Israel: You’re Not My Top Priority Anymore

The subtext of Obama’s recent trip to Israel suggests that the president has much bigger fish to fry than placating Prime Minister Netanyahu.

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All was not as it seemed during President Barack Obama’s appearances in Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he addressed audiences of Israelis and Palestinians. On the surface, it looked like Obama was swearing fealty to Israel, and pledging unconditional US support for any and all Israeli actions. But a closer look at what was and was not said, as well as some of the surrounding circumstances, suggests that what Obama was really doing was paving a road toward a reduced US role in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The contradictions in evidence abound, and could be seen from the very beginning. Obama kept calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname, Bibi, at their joint press conference. “Oh, yes, we’re just the best of friends. Don’t worry, AIPAC,” Obama seemed to be saying. “Any friction between us is a thing of the past.” Yet, Obama had made a pointed decision to deliver the keynote speech of his trip not at the Knesset, but to an audience from Israel’s major universities. The many students invited excluded only those from Ariel University, the lone Israeli university located in the West Bank settlements.

The ham-handed excuse offered by the US embassy, that they only invited those universities with whom they partnered, was a convenient one. They don’t work with that university because of the political ramifications, and the exclusion here was for the same reason. And that sent a message to Obama’s “good friend,” Bibi.

Not speaking to the Knesset sent a message as well, and it was reflected in Obama’s speech. There is no reason for Obama to speak in a chamber where there is so much hostility toward him. Instead, he told his young Jerusalem audience: “let me say this as a politician — I can promise you this, political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks. You must create the change that you want to see.” Translation: “I can’t work on peace with your current government. You need to drive the change and open the door.” That, too, was a message to Bibi.

But more important than what was said was what was not said. For all the fawning that Obama did, he offered nothing new or of substance — not the slightest deviation from his well-established policies. There’s no new version of Dennis Ross, Anthony Zinni or George Mitchell being sent to the Middle East. There are no new incentives or confidence-building plans, however pointless. There was just a whole bunch of pronouncements about the unshakeable bond between the US and Israel.

Does that sound like a president who intends to maintain the US’ current level of involvement? It seems more like a President who is telling Israelis exactly what AIPAC is buying. The annual military aid will continue, as will money for Iron Dome, and never mind the many federal employees who were just sequestered out of a job or furloughed. The security and intelligence cooperation is likely to continue as well. Israel will, as Obama put it, remain “the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world.”

While the US president sent a clear signal that he holds little hope that the current Israeli government is able or willing to pursue peace in any substantive way, he also cautioned Israelis about their growing peril. “Given the frustration in the international community about this conflict, Israel needs to reverse an undertow of isolation,” Obama said. “And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no wall is high enough and no Iron Dome is strong enough or perfect enough to stop every enemy that is intent on doing so from inflicting harm.”

Note that it’s Israel that needs to reverse this trend, and there’s no mention of any kind of US charm offensive or even advocacy on Israel’s behalf to assist the effort. The implication is clear: Israel’s policies and actions are to blame for its troubles and the US can’t change that, and, because of the political problems it would cause, this administration will not try. Could that also result in a somewhat diminished defense at the United Nations and other international arenas, on the part of the US? Time will tell.

Obama also let the Palestinian Authority know they should look elsewhere. By choosing to condemn Hamas for the rockets that hit Sderot earlier that day during his Ramallah speech rather than in Israel, he surely alienated many in the crowd he was addressing. By refusing to use even moderately stern language on settlements or promise even the mildest pressure on Israel, he seriously undermined Mahmoud Abbas, the man he was purportedly coming to support. Throughout his speech, despite his expressions of sympathy for the daily struggles of Palestinians, Obama never mentioned Israel’s responsibility to end the occupation, let alone to respect human rights or abide by international law.

That sent a very clear message: don’t look to the United States to deliver the goods. If Abbas was listening at all, he must know that internationalizing his cause, as he did last year at the UN, is the only option Obama has left for him. It was so clear, it had to be a deliberate message.

This might all be considered fanciful until one considers the changing position of Israel in the US view. As Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz points out, the entire Middle East region is of considerably less importance in the broader geo-political strategic view of the United States. “U.S. President Barack Obama said Wednesday his visit to Israel was meant to be a reassuring one,” Benn writes. “He is here to make it clear to Israelis that America stands behind them and will ensure their security, even though the neighborhood has become tougher… The visit comes at a time when the United States is withdrawing from its deep involvement in the Middle East, amid the growing fear of Israel and other regional allies that America will abandon them to radical Islamic forces.”

Benn’s alarmist language aside, he’s right. A big part of this is the oft-discussed “pivot to Asia,” that is the cornerstone of Obama’s foreign policy. Asia’s importance is growing as the Middle East’s is shrinking. The Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, was once called the “greatest material prize in history” by the US State Department because of its wealth of oil resources. But the US and Europe both see themselves on the road to “energy independence.” This sounds a little more grandiose than it really is. Local oil resources and increased reliance on alternative energy sources will significantly diminish the role of Middle Eastern oil both in terms of serving energy needs and in terms of its role in the global economy, but it won’t eliminate it. OPEC will still be a major force in determining the price and supply of oil, but it won’t have the near-monopoly it does today.

But that’s not the only factor. The so-called “Arab Spring” is not the simple romantic vision of emerging democracy that so many in the West thought it was, while they watched Egyptians oust Hosni Mubarak. It’s also not just the massive violence of Libya and Syria. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, transitions have been bumpy and marked with dissatisfaction and political jockeying as well as some very fundamental debates about the role of women, the military, religion and other key groups and institutions in their respective societies. Moves toward true independence and self-determination in these countries will be a long and unpredictable road. And no matter who ends up controlling the oil, they will have less leverage over the West than their predecessors with even more of a need to sell their oil there. So the strategic situation will be less favorable for the Arab governments that arise from this situation.

Not to mention the situation on the ground. Israel has elected a new government that has no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Settlement expansion continues while the Israeli bunker mentality is fortified. For their part, the Palestinians remain trapped between a Palestinian Authority which has lost virtually all legitimacy in the eyes of its people but is the only acceptable “partner” for the US and Israel, and a Hamas government that no one will talk to. Both sides of that divide seem as uninterested in reunification as Netanyahu is in a viable Palestinian state.

Then there’s the big mitigating factor, the US Israel Lobby. Obama has a lot of work to do in the next four years, and he needs Congress to do it. Much of that work focuses on domestic economic issues, but there are foreign policy questions as well. He simply cannot afford to spend the political capital of his second term fighting with AIPAC all the time. Nor do his colleagues in the Democratic Party wish to see him jeopardize their chances of making gains in the midterm elections by picking a fight with Israel.

But that domestic pressure is really all that is holding the US to Israel at this point. Powerful as AIPAC is, the President can still set broader policy priorities, as he seems to be. Asia will have its own difficulties, but the interests there are growing, while the US stake in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Yemen, and yes, even Israel and Palestine, are diminishing. To be sure, there is still a significant US stake in the Israel-Palestine conflict. And AIPAC will make sure we pay attention to it, as will the fact that Israel is a long-standing ally and while AIPAC may represent a small minority of US citizens, most do not want to see Israel as vulnerable to attack.

Ultimately though, Obama knows that the US has spent inordinate time and energy on this issue. He also knows that it’s becoming less and less vital for US concerns that really matter to him as time goes on. So, he goes to Israel, warms some hearts and minds and gives AIPAC the platitudes and assurances it wants. As Benn wrote, “With every passing day, Israel becomes less capable of taking out Iran’s nuclear facilities by itself, while its dependence on the United States for military superiority just keeps growing.” The US will continue to lead on Iran, which is something Obama wants.

As for the peace process? Obama would like to see Israel make peace possible, but absent that, he’s sent them a message: we’ll help if you want, but until you show some interest in changing the status quo, we have bigger fish to fry.

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