Obama Must Embrace Israel's Tribal Politics

By Daniel Levy


It was not always thus.

Despite the characteristic sense of entitlement conveyed by many in the Israeli elite in advance of Barack Obama's first presidential visit: "You finally made it, what took you so long?" the must-go-to-Israel clause in the U.S. presidential contract is of surprisingly recent vintage.

Next week marks the ninth visit by a sitting U.S .President. But half of those previous eight trips were notched-up by Bill Clinton alone, and another two by George W. Bush in his very last year in office (yes, he waited eight years to say "Hi" in person). The nature of this Obama visit, most closely resembling the second Bush trip of May 2008, should tell us something about the changing contours of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

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The first two presidential visits were in the 1970's. Nixon came in 1974 (a quarter-century after Israel's creation) and Carter in 1979, both unequivocally focused on advancing Israeli - Egyptian deals that served American regional interests: First, the post-1973 war separation of forces agreement, and later the Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Another fifteen years and two Presidents elapsed before Clinton became such a regular on these shores in the 1990s. All four of his trips were unmistakably dedicated to the peace process of the time - attending the Israel-Jordan peace agreement signing in 1994, Yitzhak Rabin's funeral in 1995 (it would be absurd to de-link that occasion from the Israeli - Palestinian process), the post-bus-bombings and pre-election 1996 stop-over designed to save the peace process by hugging Shimon Peres (standing for election against Netanyahu), and finally a December 1998 visit to push the implementation of the Wye River Agreement, including an historic stop in Gaza (again, in part, a political visit to challenge Netanyahu). Even President Bush's January 2008 jaunt was about pushing the Annapolis peace talks, however misguided and flawed those were.

So for thirty-plus years the ostensible driving factor for Presidential visits has been to align America's Israel relationship with its national security interest, by promoting peace between Israel and its neighbors.

The second Bush visit in June 2008 broke that trend, dedicated as it was to celebrating Israel's 60 anniversary and marking the primacy of the bilateral and political in defining American-Israeli interaction. The timing and anticipated content of the Obama visit would appear to continue that new orientation. It is again mostly about politics (U.S. domestic politics) and the bilateral relationship. The Palestinians will be mentioned and feature as part of the visit, yet expectations of a new Israel- Palestine initiative are low for good reasons. Obama is coming first and foremost to make a statement about the U.S.-Israel bond, not the illegal occupation, the unresolved conflict or American interests.

Of course Iran will also be on the agenda, a potential conflict that is often hyped in part to displace the one that we prefer to ignore, the Palestinians. Yet even the Iran agenda is about politics over substance, with Netanyahu essentially assuming the role of an influential actor on the American political scene, from whom Obama is trying to extract several months of Congressional breathing space.

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Daniel Levy is director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in London. He is also senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and a board member of the New Israel Fund. Reprinted with permission.

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